Friday 7 December 2018

  Bombay Black is a dark tale of cultural cruelties
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

No question the movie Slumdog Millionaire was many people's introduction to contemporary India as viewed through a Bollywood lens. Not so Anosh Irani's 12-year-old script Bombay Black. The story is a tale of flawed, disfigured victims of cultural compulsions and energies that populate the sub-continent. It is a metaphor wrapt in a myth, a fable, a legend, a Freudian fairy story, a concise epic of life as it may once have been, perhaps still is, in vast complex India.

Start with an exploitive, vengeful money-mad mom who forces her teen daughter to dance privately for men. For 3,000 rupees (Cdn$60 today) on the condition the men do not touch her. Now enter a blind man. His tale from an Indian village from 15 years past unearths secrets that not only scare the women but cause their lives to trip, punishingly, into and over one another. It is as if Shiva's wrath has been unsheathed.
Munish Sharma as the mysterious blind villager Kamal breaks all the rules with dancer Apsara (Arshdeep Purba) when she allows him to touch her, contrary to her controlling, rapacious mother's rules of engagement. 
Photo credit : Raymond Kam
There are fundamentally three aspects of Iranian-Canadian Anosh Irani's play that magnetize the viewer in Diwali Artistic Director Rohit Chokhani's clever re-imagining of the script. Light/dark and chiaroscuro visuals. Terrific soundscape. And the acting. Oh the acting.

Rarely on a regional stage like Vancouver's Firehall is one treated to such commanding and captivating performances by each of the three principals. Of Nimet Kanji's mother, Padma, an acquaintance put her forceful nuanced expressionism succinctly : "She could be brushing her teeth on stage and I would be mesmerized." Her facial contortions match Padma's loving, treacherous soul with this daughter she loves and despises both.

Nimet Kanji as her daughter's "promoter" and jailer tries to tell Aspara (Arshdeep Purba) the "truth" about why her daughter must dance enticingly for men to appease the gods as well as earn rupees so she can buy meet to feed the Bombay eagles out of her hand off the studio balcony.  
Photo credit : Raymond Kam
Perhaps not enough can be stated without abject hyperbole about Munish Sharma's turn as a blind man on a mission, Kamal. For 90 minutes he captured stunningly both the inward and outward essence of being blind, or "always in black" as he put it. Eyes half shut the entire time, his gentle persistent phantasy-weave in efforts to find and win back his child bride was hypnotic. He spins a dizzying tale again and again about warring gods, a dancer and a lotus flower -- a story he wants to make real.

Daughter Apsara -- named for a Hindu goddess / temptress / assassin -- was given a bold and embracing turn by Arshdeep Purba. Her Bhangra/Bollywood-inspired dance techniques that she started learning as a grammar school kid were spellbinding : not just charming but bewitching. The story of how and why she was afraid even as a late-term teen to venture out into the local neighbourhood market without clutching mom's sari makes for a breath-taking bio-sketch involving her never-seen priest of a father who banished her and her mother from their village of Badu for being demons.

Sound Designer Rup Sidhu faces the prospect of Jessie Award inevitability for his tour de force production. He starts with 120 decibel soundscape of Bombay street scenes with their incessant horn toots, scooter exhausts, random voices and bells and dogs and general din. The audience is invited to wear a scarf over their eyes to imagine Kamal's world prior to the show starting. And start it does -- with a percussive bang! of light and sound : absolutely astonishing music to open the show, a trad seductive wedding dance serenade called "In Aankhon Ki Masti" by Asha Bhosle. [See].

Similarly, Chengyan Boon's lighting composition was a lyrical mix of starburst explosions mixed with oblique half-lights and purposeful all-dark moments to reflect freshman Director Chokhani's totality of vision.

Irani's script reflects Canada's intercultural, raw-cut sights and sounds and flavours that are thrown together mulligatawny-style across the land. Almost impossible to imagine this piece attracting much notice in USA, by contrast, except among the most earthy Greenwich Village or Berkeley bunch. The story told is lyrical and horrifying and uplifting, literally, at the end. For its composite strengths in acting, sound, light, dance, & mythos it surely is a not-to-be-missed event of stage imagination cut loose and set free that utterly and wholly engages both brain and heart.

Particulars : Script by Anosh Irani (that won a Dora Moore Award in Toronto for Outstanding New Play, 2008). Produced by Firehall Arts Centre, Donna Spencer, Artistic Producer.  At the Firehall Arts Centre, Gore at Pender. On until December 15, 2018.  Run-time 120 minutes, one intermission.  Tickets & schedule information @ Firehall

Production team :  Director and Producer Rohit Chokhani.  Set and Costume Designers Tanya Schwaerzle & Rohit Chokhani.  Sound Designer Rup Sidhu.  Lighting Designer Chengyan Boon.  Dance Coach Gunjan Kundhal.  Voice Coach Alana Hawley. Stage Managers Tanya Schwaerzle & Emma Hammond.  Publicist Teresa Trovato.  Associate Producer Shanae Sodhi.  Production Associates Ayush Kathuria & Ashley Rose.

Performers :  Nimet Kanji (Padma).  Arshdeep Purba (Apsara).  Munish Sharma (Kamal).


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