The Path of Zarathustra: A Beautiful Film About A Difficult Concept
Veteran theatre and film actor Tom Alter was kind enough to take some time out and indulge in a conversation about Oorvazi Irani’s debut film The Path of Zarathustra, that narrates a contemporary story about a woman juxtaposed against the history of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. Read on to find out his thoughts on what drew him to the role, the unique aesthetic of the film and the miracle that it reached cinema-goers at all.
How did you first hear about ‘The Path of Zarathustra’ and what was it that drew you to this role?
Oorvazi, the director, called me up and told me about this project; I’d never met her before this. She came to the house with the script and the concept, and her passion for the subject was incredible. She was very inspiring and the way she explained her dream of making a film on such a difficult subject really moved me – in fact, it was her passion, even more than the script, that made me want to be a part of this project.
Having worked extensively in theatre as well as the Hindi film industry, tell us about your thoughts on these today. Which one would you say is closer to your heart, and why?
I can write a thesis in answer to this question, and it’s a good one, but I’d really like to focus this conversation on Oorvazi’s film, because films like these are really rarely made and need as much support as possible. It’s almost a mission to get films like these released at all – and just the fact that she’s managed to get this to be released in theatres is a phenomenal and a testament to her and her father’s vision. It’s aesthetically and emotionally immense and a true landmark in Indian films, I’d say. We have here a very talented Parsi woman who is concerned about the past, present and future of the community, and the way she portrays this through her film is wonderful.
How much did you personally know about the traditions and faith of the Parsi community before working on this film?
There has been a film made 25 years ago called ‘On Wings of Fire’ in which I played a Parsi priest in Iran, at a time when Parsis were being driven out of the country. That was a totally different film though, it took a historical look at the faith, about how it came about and how the community came to India. Besides that, I’ve worked with a lot of Parsis in Mumbai, of course, but if ask me – people are people. Thanks to working with them and spending so much time with them, I do know a fair bit about the community, but the way this film looks at religion makes it very personal, and highlights how religion is not governed by a set of rules, or holy books, but something that you are truly affected by and find meaningful.
Tell us a little bit about the basic premise of the storyline, and how it blends the contemporary story of a young woman with the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism.
Oorvazi plays the role of a very modern woman who has a lot of questions about religion, identity and faith. She’s a young woman who falls in love, has an emotional love affair, and meets a lot of people – it’s a very contemporary story, and it’s based in Bombay. Her grandfather, which is the role I play, gives her a mysterious book on his deathbed which inspires her to go out and try to discover the truth, away from mindless traditions. Oorvazi has outdone herself in executing such a difficult concept.
What was it like working with first-time director Oorvazi Irani, and what was the brief you were given regarding your character?
She basically said that this was the role of a rebel priest, who always fought against the mindless traditions of religion. I’m also surrounded by people like that in my family, and so it was easy to identify with the theme and the character.
She explained that his is a pivotal role, and his major scene is the one is which he is dying and speaking to his granddaughter – and this is sort of the cornerstone of the film, where it really takes off from. In my life, I have witnessed the death of a few people, and the one thing I noticed is that it is very heightened. The last thing they say is very important. That’s what Oorvazi wanted to bring to the film – a sense of heightened emotion, without being melodramatic.
How did you go about preparing for this role?
It was a very well written scene, so it was just a matter of getting into it – and that’s really preparation enough in some cases. There was this one Parsi prayer, a chant in the original language that I had to memorise, which was a real challenge. Oorvazi finally got a Parsi priest to record the prayer and send it to us, after which we were able to do the scene.
What are your thoughts on female-centric movies, and their future in India?
I wish all our Indian movies were female-centric. (laughs) On a serious note, it’s really the story takes precedence – the film needs to be good. Just because the main character is a female, or the message behind it is good, cannot compensate for a poor film. For example, in the Path of Zarathustra, the main character is one who’s trying to change the world – and there’s also a great story and history surrounding it, she is fighting against mindless traditions and is on a personal quest for the truth. She is a person before anything else, and the context is important.
It’s about the difference between art and propaganda – preaching never works. For example, Raj Kapoor’s film Bobby is a totally commercial film, a hit in its day, is one in which the main character is a girl. It’s not a women-centric film necessarily, and what he does in the film is really show her strength, instead of preaching about it.
In your opinion, are Parsis stereotyped in mainstream Indian cinema? Please elaborate on how ‘The Path of Zarathustra’ breaks away from this, and why it is important to do so.
I think everyone is stereotyped in the commercial Hindi film industry – whether it’s Parsis, Mallus, Punjabis, Sikhs, Madrasis, women, Angrez, brahmins – I think whenever any community is in a minority, we tend to portray them a certain way and we don’t mean any harm by it.
I do hope that this begins to change, though, since the industry is based in Bombay, such a cosmopolitan city that is also home to so many of the community. I grew up in Mussoorie and only interacted with Parsis when I first came to Bombay and, as always, it’s important to remember that they’re people first. That being said, there have been some fine films made about Parsis such as Rustomjee with Naseeruddin Shah, in which the characters have been shown beautifully.
Path of Zarathustra is not commercial cinema, though, and the film is a product of the Irani father-daughter duo’s passion and strength for the story – and they’ve really seen it through. It’s really great cinema, and just the fact that it’s being released with films that are commercial means that hum usee ke maidaan mein hain, which is fantastic.
Before pursuing a career in acting, we hear you used to write about sports, something we believe you’re still passionate about. In fact, you interviewed a 16-year-old Sachin Tendulkar before his selection into the Indian team way back in 1989. What was the experience like, and what are some of your fondest memories from that time?
Oh, this is a question I have been asked many times. All I can say is, he was 15 when I met, and I was in my late 30’s, and I can honestly say – with a little bit of pride – that neither of us has really changed as people since then. Of course, Sachin has grown immensely in his field, and we’ve improved, but even 26 years later, we are as excited to see each other as I was on that day so long ago.
Did you ever struggle with being labelled the ‘perennial angrez’ in films, even though you’ve acted in a diverse range of roles over the course of your career?
I’ve never thought about it – I just saw a good role, and played it. I never looked at the skin colour of character before I picked it.
Tell us about your favourite part of working on the film, or a memory from shoot that really stands out.
When we were shooting the very first scene, and Oorvazi’s character has pushed her dadaji, my character, up to the top of the hill and left him there to die, as he is a rebel priest and he cannot have the last rites that are generally accorded to the members of the community. It is such an emotional scene, it’s evening time and I was lying there on a cart and Oorvazi is pushing it up the hill. The sun was setting, and he is just left there, dead. It’s beautiful. At this point, I must say that costumes play a really big part in creating that atmosphere, and those in this movie are very real without being flashy. Every costume sits and moves with the scene, without ever standing out and attracting too much attention.
What are your thoughts on magical realism in filmmaking, and how did the cast and crew work to create that aesthetic on set? How accessible do you feel it is to the Indian audience?
I don’t like labels as such, but yes, if I had to describe this aesthetic, magical realism is one very good way to do it. Because of Oorvazi’s dream, a highly visual artistic dream and she didn’t compromise on it. We had a wonderful Bengali cameraman who laboured over each and every shot to get the right one. His work is truly meticulous – beautiful.
What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
The budget was extremely low, so we had to make do with locations where we were allowed to shoot. There was also a time constraint – every minute costs thousands of rupees, so there was no time to waste as the meter was always ticking.
What would you say were your biggest learnings after ‘The Path of Zarathustra’?
I was a little bit stubborn with Oorvazi during the shooting of the scene in which my character dies. It was a 7-8 minute scene, and I insisted we do it in one scene. Oorvazi, being a first-time director, was humble enough to listen to me – and when we did it, she also had the grace to come and tell me that it was the right call. I’ve done so many films that such things immediately click, and even though she knew exactly what she wanted, sometimes she didn’t know how to create that on screen. I am glad Oorvazi was able to let me guide her a little as most people don’t listen to advice from those who are senior to them in the industry, and the fact that she did while directing and producing the film as well as playing the protagonist is a tribute to her.
What’s in the pipeline for you next?
Many, many things. But as of now, the Path of Zarathustra which is releasing on the 4th of September, and that’s something I’m really looking forward to.
It would be great if you could share 5 tips for aspiring actors.
I can hardly put together 5 tips, but I can offer one piece of advice – the only way to learn is to do; so make sure you keep doing. Not just when it comes to acting, but everything – keep doing, and push yourself to the limit. If you don’t push yourself, you’ll never do it in acting. Get off your phones and laptops, and start doing.
– Aditi Dharmadhikari