“If a Parsi woman marries outside the community, her children are not allowed into the community’s fire temple. But the children of Parsi men marrying outside face no so such restraints,” adds Irani.
“In the beginning was the womb and the womb was the woman,” says the narrator in Anahita’s Law, a new short film that deals with prejudices against women in the Parsi community. The woman is Anahita, the Persian goddess of water in Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of the Parsis. While Anahita stands for fertility, healing and wisdom, contemporary history hasn’t been kind to women within the Parsi community.
“The film is the story of many Parsi women who are prejudiced against in the community,” says Oorvazi Irani, the director of the film. “If a Parsi woman marries outside the community, her children are not allowed into the community’s fire temple. But the children of Parsi men marrying outside face no so such restraints,” adds Irani.
“Gender bias exists among Parsis even though we are a liberal and highly educated community,” says Irani. “My film is an attempt to question such prejudices,” she adds. A member of the Parsi community in Mumbai, Irani also acts in Anahita’s Law, in which three Parsi women represent the victim and rebel within the community. Written by Farrukh Dhondy, also a Parsi, the film is a searing statement on gender in equality in the country. The 21-minute film uses the experimental medium to talk about gender justice. Irani performs the roles of all the characters in the film. “I felt it was important to debate prejudices against women in the neutral space of art,” she says. “Our religion, which is 3,000 years old, has traditionalists, liberals and radicals. But in Mumbai, the community is more traditional. When you are a traditionalist, you stop questioning,” adds Irani.
It was the debate over the uniform civil code that inspired Irani to make Anahita’s Law. “Gender bias comes when the law is influenced by religions shaped by patriarchal framework. The law has to be neutral,” says Irani, who supports the triple talaq Bill. “Religion is about evolution,” she adds. Once she decided to make the film, she found support in Dhondy, a friend of Irani’s father, Sorab Irani. “We shared the idea of the film with Farrukh Dhondy,” she says. Always eager to question traditionalism in the Parsi community, Dhondy readily jumped in. “I was asked by producer Sorab Irani and director Oorvazi Irani to write something which would consider the impact of such a law on the Parsi community,” recalls Dhondy.
“Classical ancient Zoroastrianism, probably predating what we call ‘Hinduism’, and its theology were not the subject or target of any part of the film. The aim was to tell stories of the imposition of bigoted beliefs, practices and prejudices on the lives of Parsi women. I didn’t draw on anything prescribed by religion but only on stories from observed lives,” explains Dhondy. “The proposed law to provide a uniform civil code would eliminate the practices assigned, through what I regarded as bigoted traditions to different religions.”
Dhondy had earlier written the screenplay for Irani’s debut feature film, The Path of Zarathustra (2015), an attempt at understanding the essence of religion through the Parsi community. “There is so much ritual and dogma in the religion that people forget the humanism at the heart of it,” says Irani, whose first short film was on her grandmother, who came to Mumbai from Iran and got married in Nashik.
In The Path of Zarathustra, Dhondy brought historical characters, mostly heretics, from Zoroastrianism to look at today’s Parsis. Steeped in magical realism, the film discusses characters like the heretic Mani Mazdak, who was beheaded for espousing radical views about religion. Irani acts as a 20-year-old Parsi girl who is sent out to the world by her grandfather (played by Tom Alter) to discover her religion. In the process, the girl goes to her aunt’s house and finds love. The film’s punchline is: “Every search for god ends in love.” Irani adds, “Love is about humanism, not rituals and dogma.”
Irani believes that being a Parsi is a unique aspect. As per the 2011 Census, the population of Parsis in India, a community that came to the country from Iran in the 8th century, was 57,000, though it is currently estimated to be about 69,000. “We represent issues that come with modernism. Parsis have been pioneers in building Mumbai and the community needs a voice in the modern times because the issues they represent are also universal,” she adds with a warning. “We are a community that is soon going to disappear.”
(The writer is a freelancer. Views are personal.)