An Old-World Luminescence

An Old-World Luminescence


In every culture, a new community is assimilated first through its food. With time, when a dish of a community becomes a household name, both the community and the city evolve into something more. For their travel issue, T: The New York Times Style Magazine approached us with the idea of documenting the culinary traditions of the Parsi community through the unique cafe spaces of Mumbai. We provided research and on-ground expertise for a hectic three-day shoot that saw Anthony Cotsifas chasing perfect lighting and moments to capture the rich interiors of the city’s popular Parsi cafes.
  • Cuisine

  • History & Architecture

Day 0

Day 1

Day 1 (contd.)

Day 2

Day 0

The Parsi community, being a well-knit and closed one, is also well-known for its generosity. In preparation for our journey with the T Magazine, we reached out to our friends from the community to get access to information and contacts needed to produce the story, making new friendships along the way.

On a windy winter morning, Anthony arrived in Mumbai with his team. After a brief rest, we decided to do a quick recce of each cafe to speak with the decision-makers and also get a sense of space, so we could map out our schedule and logistics over the next two days.  The cafes were chosen by the editors from the initial suggestions put together by our team, in line with the story's aesthetic.

Keeping in mind that this was an interior shoot to be accomplished only with natural light in spaces with heavy footfall throughout the day, we needed to be precise with our shooting times based on the availability of light and the ebbs and flows of customer traffic. Our friend Zarine Commissariat, who is a longstanding member of the community, was gracious enough to meet us on this day to take us to each of the spaces where we spent time planning how to shoot it in the coming days and interact with the owners of the cafes to help plan it better.

Having worked with Anthony before, we were well aware of his style of working and how he loved to shoot with his large-format cameras while composing his shots. The low-light in many of the spaces we were about to shoot in meant long-exposure would come into play, but the fact that each space would have customers throughout gave us very short windows to shoot in. Added to the throng of curious visitors that a large-format camera would inevitably attract everywhere we went, playing havoc with our work rhythm and overall control of the environment, we knew we had our task cut out, and went to bed eager to begin.

Day 1

With a call time before sunrise, we headed to Kyani & Co., armed with a foldable ladder and other equipment to be there before its opening. Knowing about the cafe regulars who would religiously wait outside the closed doors to grab their morning chai and bun maska, we had to be there as early as possible. 

A proper breakfast place with 3 entrances, it was just a matter of minutes before the place filled up. Having met the owners the day before and planned, we had no problem getting started the moment we walked in. Amidst the early morning rush, they were kind enough to accommodate and provide us with some space and time to complete our shoot. As space filled up, Anthony had to race to get the various shots he had in mind, some panoramic shots and some of the vivid counters filled with delicacies, all the while with waiters moving about. Everyone, right from the waiters to the customers were curious to find out more about what was happening–some people stood and posed, while others walked very slowly hoping to steal a place in the shot. We were particularly amazed by this one guy who sat in his seat for around 45 minutes, often turning around to look at the camera. So our team had to double up as bouncers along with the cafe waiters and manage the crowd while we moved about the shooting. Eventually, it became a bit unwieldy for us to shoot so we packed up, deciding to come back the next day for some remaining shots Anthony had in mind.

The next stop was the Ripon Club. A members-only club frequented by lawyers, the space added a new dimension to the story both in terms of its aesthetics as well as the logistics. With access being restricted to members, they opened their doors to us on the request of its member and our friend, Zarine. Once inside, we were privy to the generosity and the hospitality that the community is known for; we were served with a traditional Parsi breakfast with eggs–a welcome respite after an arduous morning shoot. 

Day 1 (contd.)

The club’s dining area was one long, single hall punctuated by old furniture, quaint switchboards, and stately pillars that evoked a sense of nostalgia. Shooting interiors in natural lighting can be a challenge in most cases, but due to the airiness of the space, this was a breeze. Moreover, given the private off-hours access we had, the club space was all ours with no curious passersby or waiters trying to sneak into the shot.  Anthony spent time shooting the regal portraits of its members, surrounded by the beautiful antique décor.

Next on our list was the famed Britannia & Co. Having made quite the reputation for the colour of its walls and the aesthetic, the cafe was high on our list of places to shoot. We reached there around lunch to be greeted by a long queue. However, thanks to our prior coordination with the owner, he was kind enough to reserve a table for us and led us straight to it. We sat sipping chai and nibbling some traditional snacks while waiting for the crowd to dissipate. 

The crowd wasn’t abating and the owner was caught in a fix–he wanted to help but couldn’t inconvenience his customers either. After some convincing by our producer, they finally accommodated our request by cordoning off one section of the cafe by redirecting their customers to the other side. It allowed us to shoot their beautiful textured walls on one side, without losing time or light. Eventually, the crowd abated towards the closing hours and we were welcomed to stay on and shoot more. As the waiters helped us with refreshments, we worked frenetically to finish our targeted shots before the light got dim. And quickly moved out to the parking lot on the other side of the road, attracting unwanted and unneeded attention, obviously, to photograph the cafe’s exterior facade. 

The busy lanes of Mumbai are no place for a guy like Anthony to unfold a ladder and climb on top of it to shoot through a medium format camera raised on a six-foot tripod. There were cars parked in front of the cafe that had to be moved, motorists were slowing down and 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. But with our producer and team mediating, we could finish the shots we wanted to get. And after a long charade of around five hours, we called it a day, tired but satisfied.

Day 2

Early morning, we decided to go back to Kyani & Co. to complete some shots leftover from the previous day. With some struggle with the waiters and the crowds, we succeeded and moved out to capture the exteriors quickly before heading back. The rest of the day was dedicated to Yazdani Bakery and B. Merwan & Co.

Around noon, we went to Yazdani, the smallest of all the cafes–a traditional setting that dealt with only bread and pastries. During our initial recce, we had been warmly greeted by its proprietor, an affable larger-than-life gentleman with a passion for bodybuilding. He had engaged us in an interesting conversation about the cafe

’s history while serving us their traditional fare and understood the gravity of what we were trying to accomplish. He had arranged for the cafe to be kept open after closure (they make morning bread and close by noon on weekends) so we had a supportive team helping us capture its quaint and intimate space. 

Zarine and her grandson kept us entertained as we moved through the interiors at our own pace, and moved out into the narrow street and blocked it temporarily to capture the façade. One of our favourite spaces in the story, with old machinery, a beautiful colour palette and patina to match, Anthony captured it to his heart’s content. 

We then headed to B. Merwan & Co., which was always bound to be a big challenge, given that the cafe was illuminated solely by artificial lighting and had little natural light except for its two main entrances. On top of this, the place was open all days of the week, making it crowded at any point in time. As we went in and waited, our producer got into the thick of conversation and the owner, an affable octogenarian, agreed to close the shop for a brief period despite the steady inflow of customers. It was an unbelievably generous gesture from him, and in a moment, reaffirmed the value of what we were trying to capture, the indefinable beauty of everything Parsi. 

After his agreement, we had to still solve a practical problem. The cafe’s two entrances were the only source of natural light and we could not close them, but neither could we allow the eager customers to come in while shooting. A team of fascinated waiters, joined by our driver, came to the rescue and turned bouncers on the street so that no one would walk in while we ran through the space composing our shots. After some adventure, we managed to wrap up the shoot at the last of our interiors, with some time to spare.

Looking back at our hurried foray into the exquisite world of these cafes, mixed with sprints and waits, we left with a sense of contentmentencountering fascinating people while discovering extraordinary spaces that hold within them timeless memories of a cuisine, and a community.

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