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BEHIND THE SCENES

An Old World Luminescence

A KAMALAN PRODUCTION JOURNEY
WITH THE NEW YORK TIMES
An Old World Luminescence

KAMALAN X THE NEW YORK TIMES, FEBRUARY 2019

In every culture, a new community is assimilated first through its food. When a dish of a community becomes a household name, both the community and the city evolve into something more. It was to document the cuisine of Parsis, a community tracing its roots in India to almost 1000 years ago, that we accompanied The New York Times to the city of Mumbai, to help them document the cuisine has become a part of the daily life of the city’s people through its unique spaces, the Parsi cafés.
PROMINENT THEMES
  • Cuisine

  • History & Architecture

Day 1

Day 2

Day 2 (contd.)

Day 3

Day 1

Like most memorable things, it was a surprise when the New York Times reached out to us with a story. They approached us to help them bring their idea, of documenting the culinary traditions of the Parsi community, to life. To our added excitement, it was decided that Anthony Cotsifas, who had travelled with us before, will be working on this story. On the request being communicated, our legwork began. The Parsi community, being a well-knit and closed one, required us to do a lot of groundwork before the journey could commence. We reached out to a lot of members, establishing some friendships along the way, which helped us get permission and access to exclusive clubs and culinary spaces in Mumbai.

One fine day, Anthony arrived in Mumbai with his assistant. We decided to do a quick recce of each café to understand the timings and logistics that would ultimately have to be factored in while devising a shooting schedule. Our first stop was the Ripon Club. With the help of our friend, this famous club restaurant, frequented by lawyers, was welcoming. We headed next to Yazdani, where we were greeted by its proprietor, who gave us permission to shoot the next day afternoon. Yazdani was the smallest of all, a traditional Irani café that dealt with only bread and pastries. 

Britannia & Co. had earned quite the reputation for the colour of its walls and the aesthetics, and Anthony was very keen to shoot it. The day we asked for being a Sunday, the owners refused to open the café for us. A little disappointed, we proceeded to our next café. A popular breakfast place, Kyani & Co. begins its day at 7 am. The owners were a bit hesitant to let us shoot, allowing us access only during its usual business hours and not earlier. Our final rendezvous was with the owner of B. Merwan & Co. An affable octogenarian, he allowed us to shoot on Sunday afternoon. The problem was the café was situated right next to the Grand Central Train station and was almost always overflowing with activity. Even after a lengthy explanation, the owner was not ready to open it for us on Sunday morning. Only after a lot of convincing, the owner yielded a little, agreeing to leave the café open for a little longer. 

Day 2

The day began early for us; at around 7 in the morning, we reached Kyani & Co., holding the heavy gear, waiting for the shutters to go up. Unsurprisingly we weren’t the only ones – we were joined by a small crowd of regulars waiting for their morning fix. 

The greatest challenge that we faced on this trip was shooting interiors of cafés with a reputation that has garnered curious visitors and longstanding regulars. To top it, Anthony’s modus operandi largely consists of long-exposure shots, and his equipment gargantuan and old-school – except for the digital backup. They required a lot of time to set up and while shooting, minimal movement. Even fans had to be switched off to reduce the effect of movement. And our shoots were to capture the interiors of famous cafés situated in the busiest parts of the city.

This elaborate set-up could not escape Mumbai, the Bollywood town’s attention. Everyone, right from the waiters to the customers were curious to find out more about what was happening. Anthony had to climb up a ladder to get a few wide-angle shots of the café and the city. We managed to get some good shots, but it proved quite a task as everyone wanted to be in the shot. Some people stood and posed, while others walked very slowly hoping to steal a place in the shot.

We were particularly amazed at this one guy who sat in his seat for around 45 minutes often turning around to look at the camera. As the crowd coming in increased, we had to double up as bouncers to make sure they stopped or walked outside the frame. The effort was well worth it.

Day 2 (contd.)

The smoothest part of our journey was our time at the Ripon Club. The place was literally handed over to us for around two hours and Anthony was able to shoot to his heart’s content. Made up of old switchboards, furniture, and clocks, the club evoked a very strong feeling of nostalgia. We were served with a traditional Parsi breakfast, which we relished after a sumptuous shoot.

We were welcomed at Britannia & Co. with a line of almost 30 people waiting to enter the café. Like all other Parsi cafés, this was extremely famous and hence, extremely crowded. The owners, while apologetic, were also in a difficult situation as closing the café would have been impolite towards the waiting customers. So, we had to wait for the crowd to thin, and we sat there sipping our tea and munching on some snacks. It was almost a 2-hour wait and Anthony was getting restless.

Following some persuasion, the proprietor relented to cordoning off one of the sections, which turned out to be not so helpful. After a few shots, Dheeraj went up to the proprietor again to show him a few of the shots and how they were turning out to be bad due to the constant movement. After a while, there was a welcome lull in the flow of people, and we quickly grabbed a few shots with some help from the remaining customers and the staff, before facing our next challenge; the shoot needed a photograph facing the café from the outside.

The busy lanes of Mumbai are no place for a landscape shoot. There were cars parked in front of the café that had to be moved, there were people walking into the frame to stand and pose. We had curious passersby and children who could not resist asking questions or touching the equipment. After a long charade of around five hours, we called it a day, tired yet satisfied.

Day 3

We began our next day at Kyani & Co. Reaching there early, at around 6 am, we tried to persuade the owners to open it a bit earlier than usual. Sunday mornings are usually way more crowded than a weekday, and we did not want to lose the chance when the café was empty and the lighting perfect. We then went back to the hotel for a quick refreshment and headed to Yazdani and B. Merwan & Co. Yazdani was empty and there was only a family member and staff who helped us with everything. The family member was quite chatty and had a long conversation with us. Of the whole café, only the bread counter was open. But that was enough to attract a crowd. Once again, we had to act as bouncers to reorganize and regulate things. We even sold a few loaves of bread. We required bread boxes to be set up for the shot and for the sales, and by the time the shoot was done, most of the boxes were sold out.

Our final shoot in this fast-paced journey was at B. Merwan & Co. It was the toughest of them all as it was the darkest in terms of the lighting. Natural light was integral to the shoot and only when there was no other option available did we resort to artificial lighting, which was the case here. The café had a separate room for women which we shot first and then moved on to the other rooms. As with the other cafés, we had a hard time convincing the owner to give us free access to the place. In the end, he agreed. As space cleared up for our shoot, all the staff, around 20-25 of them stood and watched in fascination. We had to double up as bouncers with the incoming crowd increasing as time passed - we had to explain to the confused people that there was a shoot going on inside. We also had to stop the people from walking out as we were shooting from the outside.

Looking back at the hurried, time-crunched trip into the exquisite world of Parsi cafés, we realized that after all the running around, convincing and waiting, we were leaving the place with a sense of accomplishment – from coming across interesting people with interesting stories to tell, an extraordinary cuisine, and quaint spaces that hold within them many memories of the city.

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