Blackest RomCom for deepest Kalyug

CultchLab lights up with Magic Realist vision of a City of Dreadful Night

Mother/daughter bonding: My way or the highway. Photo: Zaheda Rahemtulla

If you come early to see Bombay Black at the Vancity Culture Lab, you’ll be blindfolded and ushered to your bleacher seat amidst a cacophony of urban Indian street sounds. (You’re allowed to remove the blinders once seated).

If you arrive too late for the blindfold, you’re likely to wind up in the front row of the tiny theatre – the last remaining seats in the packed mini-house – with nothing between you and the narrow performance space.

Either way, prepare for extreme claustrophobia. Blindfolded, the sheer density of the Bombay soundscape presses in on you like nothing you’d ever experience in even the most raucous warrens of Vancouver. But, seated front-and-centre (as we were), the sense of in-your-face crowding is even starker.

The houselights fade, plunging the whole black box theatre into pitch darkness. And then, in the abrupt blaze of the downstage spot, you find yourself eye-to-eye with the gauzily veiled, tauntingly erotic figure of a latter-day nautch dancer (Agam Darshi), as the offstage voice of her mother/impresario (Nimet Kanji) barks commands to “tart up” her gyrations even more.

The breathless crush of the staging mirrors the deadly, stifling co-dependency of this mother/daughter pair. Like millions of other internal migrants in India, they’re fleeing the gothic horrors of their home village for the grim, hardscrabble anonymity of city life.

With her childhood scarred by incestuous rape, the daughter is too traumatized to even leave their fourth floor walk-up apartment. So the mother has turned their seaside aerie into a discretely downmarket pleasure dome where she hosts private phone-in clients for titillating nautch shows with an optional side order of cocaine or Bombay Black (a compound of hashish and shoe polish).

Meanwhile, both women plot grisly vengeance – on one another and on the child-fucker father who so traumatized each of them. Rape, pedophilia, murder, dismemberment and karmic retribution: quite the lightsome background for a comedy.

Yet that’s what this is, according to classical drama theory, whether by the criteria of Aristotle (it culminates in a marriage) or the prakarana of the ancient Natyasastra (“happy ending” plays about made-up characters who are neither royal nor divine).

Not just a comedy, but a RomCom, thanks to the interpolation of a third character into this grim ménage – a mysterious blind man (Munish Sharma).

This interloper’s gradually revealed back-story brings matters to a head between the two women. But, even more crucially, he brings to the action a startlingly generous “blind” sensibility that changes the tenor of the play, unleashing the “magic realism” of author Anosh Irani’s poetic imagination.

From the blind man, the dancer learns to “see” with her hands, matching the lines of a face with those of her palms. He teaches her the expansive vistas of a soundscape, where there’s no horizon and nothing casts a shadow and stone monuments can float out to sea as escape rafts. Together they parse the etymological enigmas of their Sanskrit names, the quandaries of ancient myths and the riddle of their shared fates.

Against this current of romance, Irani sets a strong undertow of bitter passion from the two women. To accent the ebb and flow, he dices the dialogue into very short – but intense – mini-scenes, punctuated by slivers of bat-blind blackout. Director Rohit Chokhani moves the action along briskly, with heroic back-up by lighting designer/stage manager Chengyan Boon.

But the real magic of all this magic realism rests solidly upon the tripod of the three perfectly matched co-stars.

Darshi veers effortlessly between the sultry allure of a professional temptress, the crushed innocence of a battered child, the edgy cynicism of a hard-bitten sex worker and the hope-against-hope of a born-again dreamer.

Kanji starts from a baseline of tartly comedic mother-in-law tropes (à l'indienne, to be sure, although the stock-character type is universal). But she quickly morphs into a wide-eyed harridan of fearsomely murderous intensity.

And Sharma, with unremittingly downcast eyes, somehow manages to fix his – and our – gaze on far-flung poetic horizons.

So suspend your disbelief for 90 minutes and plunge into the dark of Bombay Black; there’s light at the end of this tunnel.


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