Written and performed by Dipti Mehta. Directed by Mark Cirnigliaro. Produced by the Cultch and Diwali in B.C. at the Vancity Culture Lab on October 21. Continues to November 4
Writer and performer Dipti Mehta’s 70-minute, one-woman show, Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan, is ambitious, smart, and a masterclass in character work.
Chameli is a tough, shrewd sex worker in Mumbai. Her daughter, Rani, has grown up knowing that when she is 16, her mother will sell her “honour” and she will be forced into sex slavery.
Rani’s grooming and training about how to please a man and open his wallet is stomach-turning, but Mehta also manages to elicit a lot of laughs. Chameli’s opinions of men are at once funny and heartbreaking, astute and cynical, and the play opens with Rani offering a wonderful lesson in Hindi swear words. “What, you don’t know Fuck Lane?” she asks mockingly. “Your Lonely Planet doesn’t show it as a tourist attraction?”
As Rani, Mehta sparkles and seduces, conveying contrasting personality traits with believability. Rani is wise beyond her years—she’s come of age in a brothel, of course—and she’s also hopeful, if naive, that she can find a way out of her impending sale. Mehta keeps Rani’s rage and uncertainty close to the surface at all times, and it flickers across her face even when she’s trying to be carefree or shocking.
Mehta’s Chameli has a slight stoop to her back, and always sits with one leg drawn up and bent to her chest. She’s aging out of the business, and though she’s a hard woman, Chameli’s also the only prostitute without a pimp in the brothel. Hers died when she was younger, and she has raised his son, Shyam, who will ultimately become Rani’s pimp. There’s also Meena, a eunuch; Laal, a client; Pandit Rama, a corrupt priest; and Draupadi, a princess from the Indian epic Mahabharata, and if this sounds like a lot—well, it is, and this is where Honour begins to suffer from too much of a good thing and sag under the weight of all of its trappings.
Draupadi, the princess, is one of two framing devices. The other is an unnamed white woman doing research in the brothel, and to whom Chameli tells her painful backstory (for money, of course), as well as justifying Rani’s sale. As Honour progresses, both devices begin to feel like unnecessary distractions. These add to the play’s slightly suffocated quality, resulting in moments of emotional flatness which stand out in sharp contrast to Mehta’s otherwise nuanced, vibrant performance.