The showman

Berjis Desai

A podgy Parsi played the accordion strapped round his neck. A familiar figure at Parsi weddings, he wished the packed audience a Happy New Year with his trademark Cheshire grin. His mini orchestra comprised of a bongo player, a pianist and a buxom swooner — all Catholics from Mazgaon. A short and squat man wearing a dark blue suit gently walked up to the Chicago Radio microphone at the other end of the stage and was warmly applauded. Strangers would have found it difficult to believe that he was the community’s greatest showman and one of India’s premier stage directors.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper


In a dull, squeaky voice, he greeted his fans. Mid sentence he was rudely interrupted by a tall and gangly man dressed in a dagli and pheto, carrying a dirty cloth bag. "Oh! not you again! Who allowed you into the theater?” said the director. "I am the manager of this theater,” said the man. Many in the audience guffawed as he indeed was the manager, apart from being an outstanding comedian. He cracked a double entendre joke. The director shook his head in false dismay and apologized for the comedian’s bad taste on a saro saparmo divas (auspicious day). The Revue, a medley of gags, music, magic and frolic, was on.
Simultaneously, in another theater, his two-act comedy was being performed by veteran actors. Some of them legends. Taxis plied actors from one theater to the other. The director could smell talent from a mile. The obese, natural comedienne whose entry electrified audiences and who ultimately landed in Bollywood as the proverbial aunty; the couple whose on stage chemistry was as good as off stage; the emaciated old man with a cackling laughter; the part time magician who forgot his dialogs and ad libbed some vulgarity; the fat man with an expressionless face who drank a tincture of iodine for kicks; the bombshell with the sexy curves acting as a bimbette. Over the decades, many entered and exited; some were dumped. They fought for plum roles ("How can she be the heroine and me a supporting actress, ridiculous!”). He regaled in their internal dynamics and petty jealousies.
While he was too decent to operate a casting couch, his affairs with his actresses (and some said, actors too) were galore. He was quite unapologetic about it. None could accuse him of favoritism. He was thoroughly professional and a strict disciplinarian with his actors, however big or whatever his personal equation with them. Make a faux pas on the stage and he’d kill you.
He had a long and happy marriage with a Parsi lady much taller than him, who had a strange talent. On stage (rarely), she appeared like a bad actor. However, in those TV-less days, on All India Radio every Tuesday night, in the half-hour skit penned and directed by her husband, her dialog delivery kept a national audience of the Gujarati-speaking in splits. They had no children but enjoyed excellent companionship. She was his honest critic, and was thoroughly oblivious to his peccadillos. You have to give some concession to genius, she used to say.
At first blush, the showman appeared lazy and laid back, as if he had not washed his face for two days. That was deceptive. He was a prolific writer and adaptor of plays in Gujarati and English, which he directed himself, and sometimes also played a cameo role. Though comedies were his forte, he did tragedies too. One Parsi New Year, he produced a masterpiece called Aasha Nirasha (Hope and Despair) which poignantly told the tale of a childless couple aging gracefully, brilliantly enacted by a real life husband wife team. The audience, deprived of its staple diet of koyla (sick) jokes, started hooting him. (Post interval, a lout shouted: "We have not come here on a New Year’s Day to shed tears.”) He was not too perturbed but shelved the idea of serving something different to what is called, a dhansaakia (undiscerning) audience.
His day job was editing his family owned Parsi daily newspaper, which he undertook without much passion. Editorially, this newspaper was orthodox and conservative. The editor, however, was a pipe chugging, non-practising Zoroastrian who wore the sudreh as a sweat shirt. Theater was such an all-encompassing obsession that he did not even think of himself as a journalist.
Critics marvelled at the construct of his plays, the subtle interplay of sound and light. Few knew that he was a trained musician and played multiple instruments, was accomplished in Western dance and learned how to paint from the famous Austrian landscapist Walter Langhammer. His innate sense of timing of the entries and exits, dialog delivery and extracting the best from each of his individual actors made his dramas memorable. This genius would have been wasted, had he enacted only Parsi Gujarati farce. Fortunately, he adapted several Broadway hits with themes much ahead of his times (gay love) and was a force to reckon with in English theater.
His playwright father and the Bharda New High School education equipped him to understand what would tickle the funny bone of the haanda (boor) in every Parsi. His tall comedian acted as Queen Taramati, wife of the truth-loving King Harishchandra (in Parsi Harishchandra), who forsaking his kingdom for the sake of truth, became a worker lighting funeral pyres and insisted on charging fees from his penniless wife for burning the corpse of their young son who had died of snake bite. In a spoof on the Parsi crematorium controversy, the Parsi Harishchandra’s funeral pyre was a barbeque, which he examined to see if the Parsi being cremated had been "well done” or not.
Queen Taramati then performed an aarti (ceremonial Hindu custom of displaying respect) with a plate containing dar-ni-pori (sweet lentil cake) and popatji (a sweet snack) causing the altruistic King to quip "Aay aarti no samun chhè kè, RTI no? [Are these materials for ceremonial use or from Ratan Tata Institute (a play on the similar sounding words)].”
Political correctness was yet an alien concept and plays, unlike films, were not censored. This enabled our hero to get away with blue murder. One of his plays was titled Baira to sootelaj saara (Women are better lying down) which was to be performed at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan whose trustees were deeply offended, compelling him to change the name to Mari nicché ni Daulat (My Daulat who stays downstairs; daulat also means wealth in Gujarati) which became an instant hit. He translated risqué English comedies with great aplomb. He was also the first to plant his actors in the audience who would mock spar with those on the stage, the audience lapping it up. His name became, and remains, synonymous with Parsi ribald comedy. Like most geniuses, he did not take kindly to criticism and was terribly upset when in a rare flop play, the audience began slow clapping to indicate boredom.
Lung cancer, ostensibly due to the perennial pipe, claimed him. A road was named after him. His successors, mostly his assistants, failed to impress. Most of his veteran thespians perished too. Parsi New Year evenings seem so incomplete without watching one of his authentic rib ticklers. 

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.