In a Bombay apartment by the sea, a young woman dances seductively. In a dark corner of the room a blind man sits, watching her. This image, accompanied by the question Why would a blind man pay to watch someone dance? intrigued Indian-Canadian playwright Anosh Irani into writing Bombay Black.
The play, which runs Sept. 7–16 at the Vancity Culture Lab, is centered around three main characters: the blind man, Kamal; the sensual dancer, Apsara; and Apsara’s strong-willed mother, Padma, who collects the money paid by the male clientele who watch Apsara dance. Apsara is the play’s catalyst. She triggers the events of the past and she’s the reason the blind man has come back to everyone’s life in the present day.
On the creative process
“I normally don’t have a plan, I start with an image or a character and I just follow that image and see where it leads me,” says Irani. “I don’t really know what the story is until I’ve followed it for a while.”
For about a year, he let the idea simmer because “thinking and daydreaming is also writing,” he says. When he finally sat down to write the play, the first draft was finished in a couple of weeks. Coming up with a title for the play was another story.
“Normally, I get the title very quickly, [but this time] I struggled for a long time,” says Irani. “I’d already written a couple of drafts for the play and I still didn’t have a title that I was happy with.”
A friend suggested the name Bombay Black, which is a variety of the hashish drug made in Bombay, because of the mythological and surreal aspects of the play.
In seeking to explore the balance between reality and fantasy, Irani says he aims for a kind of “emotional or spiritual truth” in the play. He also draws on a culture of bar dancing in Bombay that takes on a different form than the one in North America, he says. “In North America you have strippers, so they’re topless, they strip. In Bombay they are bar dancers: they dance to Bollywood songs and it’s a combination between what they call item songs and this dance called Mujra, which is a sensual dance form. Some of the girls are incredibly talented but the idea is that some of them work part-time as sex workers [and] some don’t, some just dance. So there’s a difference in the sense that they’re clothed in India. They are never nude, but they still have hundreds and hundreds of men coming literally every night and throwing money at them in the hopes that they will spend more time with them,” Irani says.
Looking beyond the surface
Nimet Kanji, who plays the iron-willed mother, Padma, says that there are a lot of layers to explore in the play and all isn’t as it seems on the surface.
“When first reading the play, [Padma] is a complex character and Anosh’s language is really quite poetic so it’s really about digging deep into the text to find this woman,” says Kanji, who was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. “Slowly but surely, I have been digging and finding her.”
Since its premiere in 2006, the play has been reproduced several times in Canada and India. It was translated into Hindi for the Bombay and Delhi audiences.
“What was interesting there was that [when it was] translated into Hindi, it somehow made the play more rooted in reality, which was exactly what I wanted,” says Irani.
This is, however, the first time that Bombay Black will be directed in Canada by a director of Indian descent: Mumbai-born Rohit Chokhani.
Kanji hopes the play will leave viewers shocked and with plenty of food for thought.
“I think there’s lots of conversations that one can have after the show. Like was it destiny, was it environmental, was it tradition, was it culture? It brings all of that into question,” she says.
In his work, Irani says he always aims to create a shift in consciousness.
“Literary work or theatre is not meant to be complacent, it’s meant to create some sort of disturbance. It makes [viewers] go on a search, and that’s what I’m hoping the play does.”
For more information, please visit www.thecultch.com.