I didn’t make The Path of Zarathustra with an audience in mind
She’s a filmmaker, film educationalist, an acting coach, film critic and director of her production company. Oorvazi Irani who dons many hats and has so far directed short films & documentaries makes her feature film debut with The Path of Zarathustra. Director, Producer and Protagonist of her upcoming film, Oorvazi speaks to Pandolin about how being a Parsi is a unique part of her identity and why making a film that addresses the dwindling number of Parsis was important for her.
Your upcoming film The Path of Zarathustra focuses on the history and current issues of the Parsi community in India. Tell us about the journey of this film.
This film is the journey of a Parsi woman in contemporary India who is on a quest to discover the message of the mysterious book which is given to her by her grandfather (Tom Alter). Even though the core of the film is exploring the contemporary problems of the Parsi community, it aims at the essence of the religion and the message of the Zarathustra. The name of the film – The Path of Zarathustra is indicative of what the journey is about.
How did you come up with the idea of making a film on this subject?
Everything is a process and one of the aspects of it is that it happens to be my debut feature film. As an artist somewhere you are always asking yourself what is it that you want to express in your art. For me, it is very important to say something unique in my work. And I think the best way to really address that is to start with yourself. Your identity and world are the most beautiful starting points and you can easily remain truthful to them. At some point in our life we human beings often ask ourselves, ‘who are we?’. Coinciding with this idea and what gave it a more specific direction was a minority mission meet that I attended in Mumbai in 2006 where I was made aware of the dwindling number of the Parsi community. They discussed the 2001 Indian census where they put the figure to 69,000 Parsis remaining. I’m not a very religious person but what struck me was that being a Parsi was a unique part of my identity. When you lose something it disturbs you and becomes so much more precious. As an artist, thinking about the situation when Parsis won’t exist in coming years was a silent scream for me. I asked myself some questions – what is the Parsi community and faith? I felt I could address this concern and bring it to the notice of the world. I think the film, very importantly, is not only about Parsis but a lot of universal problems. Many problems that Parsis are facing are representative of developing countries.
So will it be right in saying that being a Parsi, this movie was more of a duty towards your community?
I didn’t see it like that but at one level maybe it was. It was not something that I had to do, but I wanted to do. The most interesting part in the process of making and now releasing this film is the love of the community that I experienced, which I had never realized earlier. But when I see that they are so proud of a film being made on such a topic, it is beautiful. When we talk about the Parsi and Zarathustrian (Zoroastrian) connection, there are about 1.50 lakh Zoroastrians in the world and a majority of them are Parsis. If Parsis disappear, the faith will also vanish.
Your father, Sorab Irani, is producing the film along with you. Was it a natural partnership?
My dad opened his production company in 1975 and started his career with Chetan Anand. For more than 3-4 decades, he has worked with Channel 4. Right from my college days, I’ve been associated with his company. Dad was very supportive towards the film and we both being Parsis believed in the subject. In 2006, the idea came to my mind after attending that meet. Then Dad and I got involved in other things. It was only in 2013 that we both felt that it’s the right time to start my feature film. For a film like this, no one from the industry would give me money. Getting my dad in as a producer was important.
What is the budget of the film?
It is a combination of cash and kind. If you include all that it is around 2 crores. We shot the film in different parts because of the shortage of the money. While shooting, I didn’t even have money for an Executive Producer. The film was made in a tight situation, but at the same time we were not compromising on quality. By kind I mean that we never charged our professional fees and it was three years of our time that actually went into it. Whenever we were short of money we pumped in our money so that the project is completed. I didn’t want to make the film entirely with my savings as I did not believe that I won’t get funds for it. And I was fortunate that I did get donations or support from my community. It wasn’t crowdfunding but the willingness of people from my community to help us. Even though they gave donations, they never interfered in the process of making the film.
When one is directing a film as well as playing the main protagonist, how difficult or easy is the process?
It is very challenging because it is double the effort but at the same time it is also satisfying and beautiful because you have complete control. There are two sides to it. What makes it challenging is that when you are playing three roles – director, producer and protagonist there is a constant shift taking place especially while shooting. For instance, there could be a crisis, which is the producer’s concern, but in the next setting you have to forget all about it and wear the director’s hat. You have to be compromising enough. And when you are performing, you have to forget everything that exists and get into the mode and perform. It was a great learning and at one level the shift came easily.
You have also done the Sound Design of the film. Please elaborate.
I think sound acts as a dimension of reality. We are talking about a medium that is two dimensional and sound adds that third dimension in order to make it clear. Sound can be emotive. What is exciting for me as a filmmaker is when I can make the audience go into another world through the pictures and sound. As a director, I was already exploring sound but when that responsibility fell on me completely, I I explored the nuances of sound more closely. Sound became a real and powerful tool in my hand. Being a film educationalist, I was already aware as to how sound can open up the frame. It helps you create a space of a different nature.
Could you elaborate about the process of choosing Parsi and non-Parsi actors in the film.
Since it was a film dealing with the Parsi identity, my natural first choice was Parsi actors but I soon realized that it was limiting my choice so I did cast non-Parsis as well and I feel that it worked very well. Also, I was trying to stay away from Parsi stereotyping and caricature and both my Parsi and non-Parsi actors helped me achieve that. I went through a process of meeting actors and finally found my characters. For the role of the grandfather I started with Parsi actors but it did not work out as many did not identify with the film or its form. But today I am so happy that they did not agree and I believe that no other actor could have played the grandfather’s role better than Tom Alter. He is brilliant and after working with him I have so much admiration, love and respect for him as an artist and a human being.
Also, I feel the role demanded an evolved soul who could carry the weight of this role. Tom brings a dignity and grace to its portrayal. I cannot thank him enough for also helping me with the casting of two other key characters – Shishir Sharma who played the mythical Zurvan and Vivek Tandon who played the historical high priest Kardir. Nobody was ready to take up the challenge of these roles and here came these two actors who so effortlessly brought it to life. The three key Parsi actors were Darius Shroff as the Intellectual/Mazdak, Firdausi Jussawalla as the beggar/Mani and Rushad Rana as Perseus, who all shared the mindset of their characters and being Parsis were very happy to be doing roles they identified with. I needed a very strong conviction in the character of the Intellectual while Perseus needed a softness and gentleness and both the actors beautifully brought that aspect alive in them to do justice to the parts. So it was about being true to the part and being free from particular Parsi stereotyping.
Also what led you to cast yourself in the film?
It was very difficult for me to think of someone to play this character and a known face, a popular or professional actor would not bring the rawness and innocence that was required in this character. Also as an artist it was attractive to extend my involvement and envelop myself in its creation.
Art house films mostly grab attention after making some noise in film festivals. Since The Path of Zarathustra has not been to any festivals, how are you planning to promote it?
I feel a film is made so that it is released and it’s not about which market you release it in but it needs to reach out and find its audience. Each film has its own journey. Yes, today it’s fashionable to say it’s a blockbuster or it’s a critically acclaimed festival film. But I did not make my film with an audience in mind rather made a film with an artistic integrity and in the neutral space of art and now it is setting out to find its audience.
You are an independent filmmaker, a film educationalist, an acting coach, a film critic and also the director of your production company. Are all these roles an extension of each other?
At the core of all roles (that I play) is the artist and each role is a dimension that broadens my horizon to experience the world.
Out of all these roles that you dabble into what is the most satisfying?
The role that is most consuming and personal is the closest to an artist. I feel creating is more challenging and at the same time satisfying as a process, so that might answer your question in a certain way.
You are described as a pioneer in bringing The Michael Chekhov Acting Technique into India. What led to this and how has this technique helped the actors over here?
I interacted with actors as a film educationalist and was intrigued about the process of an actor; I found my artistic self drawn to its possibilities and potential for self-discovery. This technique makes the actor aware of an infinite resource as an artist and it has helped actors be more free spirited and playful in their approach to acting, which is not limited by their personal identity. It has shown them a path to acting and their selves which they were not aware of and thus is a powerful process of artistic revelation.
You also conduct Film Appreciation modules at different universities. What is the importance of film appreciation courses in our country?
Film appreciation is about helping you understand cinema at a deeper level, about a context to understanding its relevance and influence. So at one level it’s trying to take you through the evolution of the language of cinema and at the same time is also an understanding of the other arts that help constitute its being. And it’s as relevant in our country as it is in any part of the world.
What are your upcoming projects?
Making dreams a reality (smiles).