He greets me with a firm handshake and a big, warm smile that immediately gives a peek into his affable personality. As soon as we settle down for our chat at a popular Irani restaurant in Matunga, Dr Mansoor Showghi Yezdi excitedly sets up his laptop to show me montages of Cafe Irani Chai, while shooting off orders for plates of bun maska and steaming cups of Irani chai.
“I’m proud to be an Irani chaiwalla,” exclaims Yezdi, adding after a pause, “Almost 70 years ago, my father used to sell tea in a kettle all night outside the Taj Mahal hotel at Apollo Bunder.”
Yezdi’s documentary Cafe Irani Chai explores the evolution of the famous tea, the rapidly disappearing Irani restaurants in Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad, their fight for survival amidst skyrocketing estate prices, and the younger generation’s disinterest in carrying forward the legacy.
Presented by noted physiotherapist Dr Ali Irani, this 29-minute film has been sponsored by the Iranian Zorastrian Anjuman of Mumbai. It features age-old Irani haunts in the city like Kyani, Koolar & Co, Yazdani bakery and others like the Kayani bakery in Pune and Dr Ali Hematti-owned Paradise Food Court in Secunderabad, “which can seat up to 3,500 people at one go,” quips the 57-year-old Yezdi.
Though he was born in Iran, Mumbai has been Yezdi’s home for more than 52 years and he feels a deep affection for this city. “When the Iranians arrived here in the 18th century, they were not very educated. India gave us the liberty and freedom to nurture our beliefs and prosper in whatever he did,” he smiles, adding that the Parsis learnt the art of baking from the Goans.
The Facebook page for the film is called Cafe Irani Chaii, with the double ‘i’s signifying the love between India and Iran. “The movie had already been edited so I couldn’t put it in the title,” says Yezdi, also vice president of the Indo-Iranian friendship society.
A love affair with film
“I eat, drink and dream about movies,” asserts Yezdi. The seeds for Cafe Irani Chai were sown in his childhood when Yezdi was just 10 years old. His father and uncle were partners of a canteen housed inside the iconic Plaza cinema in Dadar, which was owned by acclaimed filmmaker V Shantaram. “I would quietly follow Anna Saab (Shantaram) whenever he entered the theatre after the interval and watch the same film hundreds of times. That’s when my love for celluloid first began,” he reminisces.
To continue this love, he set up his own production company, Showmans Show, 12 years ago. Yezdi wants to always make movies that send out a message, be it about relationships or peace. He spent 10 years researching for Cafe Irani Chai and shot 500 hours of footage about the Parsis and Irani restaurants in Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad.
The film includes nuggets of information about Iranians’ journey to India 200 years ago and the warm treatment they received from the Indians, alongside fond anecdotes from actors like Jackie Shroff and Ali Asgar, with the latter animatedly describing his memories of sharing the brun maska with his friends years ago.
“My grandfather came walking to India with his children all the way from Iran in 1890 following a famine in the Yazd province. India welcomed them with open arms and we appreciate all that the Indians have done for us.”
Yezdi feels sad about the rapid extinction of Irani restaurants and says that their numbers have shrunk to barely 600 from nearly 3,000 in the country. “Iranis want their cafes to survive and the tradition to be kept alive but there are lots of problems.
The younger generation wants to cash in on the real estate prices while some enthusiastic Parsis are going abroad for greener pastures. However, they forget that it’s India that added the greenery to their lives.”
Cafe Irani Chai is Yezdi’s endeavour to repay the country that has given him so much. “We’re forever indebted to this beautiful country and I pray that it always flourishes. I would say Jai Hind Payande Baad Iran (long live Indo-Iranian friendship),” he says with a smile.