By Anosh Irani. Directed and produced by Rohit Chokhani. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, December 6. Continues to December 15
As the audience sits in darkness just before Bombay Black begins, bells jingle down the aisle. It’s the first of many moments that throw us into the black and open us up to sounds, words, and our imaginations. When the lights come up, we see the sound is coming from ghungroos, the musical anklets of a young female dancer who is now twirling on the stage.
Director Rohit Chokhani is playing with one of the central themes of Anosh Irani’s bleak and violent but magic- and myth-fuelled script. The story (by the playwright and author of books like The Cripple and His Talismans and The Song of Kahunsha) is about a Bombay mother who makes a living out of her seaside apartment, by selling men private dances with her daughter. The one rule: look but don't touch. When a mysterious blind man arrives to buy a session, secrets start to unfold, and their lives change forever.
Chokhani puts us, again and again, in the dark—a state of “blindness” that reflects the male character. The blackouts are especially effective when the blind man, Kamal (Munish Sharma), tells the dancer stories that transport both of them out of their depressing realities.
The stripped-down staging highlights the actors’ abilities in three complex roles. Irani’s script rides between the poetic and the crude. It’s also full of metaphors, with the myth of the celestial nymph Apsara (the dancer’s namesake) woven through it. But the cast manages to make it all flow naturally.
The most memorable is Nimet Kanji’s Padma, a money-hungry, embittered woman who essentially pimps her own daughter. Reprising the role from Chokhani’s hit Vancouver Fringe Festival production of the same script last year, Kanji nails her character’s acid-strength sarcasm—“Scratch my back and... I’ll scratch your eyes out!” This is a woman who wields an iron bar to smash the fingers of anyone who might touch her breadwinner, and whose favourite pastime is the highly metaphorical act of feeding raw meat out the window to hungry seagulls.
Munish Sharma finds a gentle strength in Kamal, and Arshdeep Purba, the only newcomer to the three-person play, manages Apsara’s tricky transformation, giving her more depth as the story goes along. Purba also dances mesmerizingly.
The way the second act handles revelations of her past trauma, and her mother’s resentment around it, are a bit problematic. And more could be done, on the sparse set of bench, bureau, and screens, to evoke the essential location of Bombay—the chaotic city filled with former villagers who have fled here to escape secrets, poverty, and public shaming.
In this unusual and complex script, Irani manages to work in myriad ideas: the horrifying treatment of women in India and elsewhere in the world, metaphors about seeing and blindness, and rich mythology. The biggest surprise may be that, amid all this, we also get a relatable and often funny story about a damaged mother and daughter’s relationship. Like everything else in this production, it’s a complicated and unsettling mix of the dark and light.