Anosh Irani has had a meteoric rise through the writers’ ranks in the past few years. His first novel, The Cripple and the Talismans, debuted to raves in 2004, followed by The Song of Kahunsha, selected for last year’s Canada Reads on CBC radio. The Arts Club premiered his first play, The Matka King, in 2003. His second, Bombay Black, won Toronto’s Dora Award for best new play. The two together were nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Drama.
North Vancouver’s Irani sets all his work in his native Bombay, an exotic locale for Canadian audiences, where damaged characters tell elaborate stories, and dark deeds are done. In Bombay Black a cynical, predatory mother has her beautiful daughter dance privately for men. “Be more tartish,” she coaches. “The true purpose of dance is to turn men into vegetables.” When a blind man comes along to witness the dance, he unearths long-buried secrets and turns the women’s lives upside-down.
As the daughter, Apsara, Anita Majumdar is the centerpiece of this Cahoots Theatre Projects production, transported intact from Toronto to the Arts Club. When Majumdar dances to the dynamic music of Suba Sankaran—especially when she tries to dance her way out of her terror—the play feels electric. But it loses its way when the vivid theatricality gives over to a talkfest.
The first act offers a tantalizing hybrid of Tennessee Williams, Pinter, and Indian folktale. Apsara’s mother, Padma (Deena Aziz), is The Glass Menagerie’s Amanda Wingfield in a sari, albeit bleaker. She flaps over her daughter with equal parts protection and hostility. For relaxation she feeds chunks of raw meat to eagles. The blind man, Kamal (Sanjay Talwar), comes into their household without explanation, as cryptically as a Pinter character. Dropping mysterious hints about the past and assuring Apsara that he’s her destiny, he spins an elaborate myth about the gods, a dancer, and a lotus.
All the interesting mysteries planted in act one get revealed, explained, and over-analyzed in the melodramatic second act: everything that happened back in the village when Apsara was a child, her relationship to Kamal, the dark shadow cast by her absent father, her mother’s complicity and revenge plot, the myth of Apsara and the lotus. Under Brian Quirt’s direction it all feels terribly laboured.
Quirt does provide some nice touches, backlighting the curtains of Camellia’s Koo’s set so the actors cast large ghostly shadows before entering. Rebecca Picherak’s kaleidoscopic coloured lighting gives the production a Bollywood feel.
For the stage. Irani’s fascinating Bombay stories should be shown as much as told. And they shouldn’t be over-explained. Trust the audience and let the stories dance.