Actress Delnaaz Irani, who earned her stripes in comedy, meets her mentor, the Parsi theatre institution, Dinyar Contractor. And, it’s a riot
Ree,a Gehi (MUMBAI MIRROR; April 2, 2017)

In his characteristic deadpan style, thespian and one of the key members of the Parsi Wing of India National Theatre, Dinyar Contractor declares at the outset of the interview, “Delnaaz (Irani) and I share a forceful relationship.”

“Dinsu is always too funny and throws the naughty ones here and there,” smiles the actress, who recently wrapped up her innings in the television show, Akbar Birbal.

With the tone of the conversation thus established, the two go into flashback mode while seated at Contractor’s sister Freny Anjirbaug’s home at Dadar Parsi Colony. Back in the 1980s, Irani won a trophy — instituted in the name of Contractor’s father (Rustomji Contractor) — for an inter-school elocution competition. “She was a very good looking young girl,” recalls Contractor. “And he asked my mother if I will act in his plays; my mother was like, ‘amna nahi, pachi’,” shares Irani.

A few years later the Iranis kept their promise. At 18, Irani made her stage debut in Contractor’s Kitty Kitty Bang Bang, where she acted alongside Rohini Hattangady and Anant Mahadevan. “I was thrilled. I always aspired to become a teacher and acting just happened,” she says, turning towards Contractor. “And he’s the one who taught me everything I know about acting — how to stand on stage, how to talk on stage and not orate like I would in a speech. He has also helped me discover comedy as a genre and encouraged me to act in Gujarati theatre, which is commercially very viable. I consider him my Godfather.”

Since Irani’s debut in the early 1990s, the two have acted in several plays together including hit productions such as Home Is Where Your Trouser Is; I Do, I Don’t and Darling, Darling under Contractor’s banner, who in his own words, “ran theatre like a factory.” Until date, Contractor doesn’t have a count on how many plays he’s produced. “It’s the same logic; never count your plays, your money or your wives,” he says.

Irani, who’s in splits by now, says, “Dinsu is mad, crazy, eccentric. He’s far calmer today, but back then, I was petrified of him. Everyone would call him Dinsu. But I would call him ‘Dinyar uncle’. He is maybe the funniest guy on stage, but for us he was a terror to work with.” She recalls rehearsing for a play once, when the art director walked in late, “and Dinsu picked up a chair from the stage and threw it at him.” Contractor turns to her and says with a perfectly straight face, “but that man walked in after the rehearsals were over; punctuality and commitment are important to me.”

Having devoted more than five decades to theatre, starting with Eruch Pavri’s Mamai Ni Musaafri (an old Parsi fairytale) in 1965, Contractor soon made Hinglish plays his own at a time when highbrow English theatre was the norm. “English plays were staged with names like Tom and Harry, with the locale being London and the actors would speak with an accent. We Indians don’t speak like that,” he says.

That his laugh-out-loud sex comedies, which over the years have been staged across the USA, the UK, the UAE, Africa and Nepal, was seen with some amount of judgement by his then contemporaries didn’t bother Contractor. “It’s ultimately all about who goes laughing to the bank,” he says. If Irani had to draw an analogy with someone from Hindi cinema, “he would make the David Dhawan kind of theatre. They are out-and-out comedies and huge box office hits. They are enjoyable and people get their money’s worth.”

Contractor reckons there is a fine line between humour with double innuendos and being vulgar. “It should be titillating, not obscene,” he says. “Besides,” says Delnaaz, “all the obscene things only Dinsu would do.”

According to Irani, the biggest USP of Contractor’s productions is, “Dinsu himself.” “You have to see the frenzy when he comes on stage. In I Do, I Don’t, he played nine roles and he was a total riot,” she says. But Contractor insists, “I am not Dinyar on stage. As an actor, you have to play the role and speak the lines, and let the situation around you bring laughter.”

Incidentally, Irani informs, Contractor has a tendency to forget lines, and that proves to be challenging for his actors. “While rehearsing for Carry On Papa, I’d keep telling my actor (Aatish Kapadia) to be careful as I often don’t remember my lines. He brushed it off thinking that I must be joking. When I entered the stage for our opening show at Sophia auditorium, I looked at him and asked, ‘abhi kya hai, bolo?’ Aatish almost collapsed on stage and only later gave me the cue.”

Even though his character roles in film and television are remembered for the comic relief he brought to the narrative, “the high of theatre is something else and keeps pulling me back,” says Contractor. “I get a different audience each time and gauging from them, my characters grow.”

Irani looks fondly at Contractor and says, “Often, as family, we tell him to slow down. Bas karo. But he just can’t.” “Why should I?” he asks. “I live theatre; I breathe theatre; I love theatre.”