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Anosh Irani reflects on 17 years of success for Bombay Black

Bombay Black, presented by Alberta Theatre Projects, is playing at the Martha Cohen Theatre in Arts Commons from March 7 through March 19

Bombay Black began with an idea: A love story between a blind man and a dancer.

Some 17 years later after the first production of the play, Anosh Irani reflected on the deeper meaning of his work and the theatre experience.

The play is coming to Arts Commons this week as part of Alberta Theatre Project’s 2022-2023 season.

“My plays can be disturbing. They’re entertaining for sure, they’re engaging—I’d like to think they are—but there’s also an element of disturbance,” he said.

“A play that doesn’t challenge, or a play that doesn’t disturb, what’s the point?”

Bombay Black is, at its heart, a love story, albeit a flawed one, in which a blind man falls in love with a dancer who is forced by her mother to dance for men in a seaside apartment.

“The play started as a single image, this young woman performing sensual dance in an apartment by the sea, and there’s a blind man watching her dance,” said Irani.

“I was intrigued by what this man wanted, and that was the beginning of it. Eventually, a third character showed up… so really, it’s these three individuals, and they’re all sort of wounded in different ways, and why have they come together this moment.”

Beautiful characters come from a place of pain

Irani said that as a writer, he doesn’t chase the plot, he instead focuses on what makes a character a human being.

“If you think about it, most people—I wouldn’t say all—but do we have some form of pain, a deep wound. And without realizing it, we operate from that point of pain, and we make choices from that point of pain,” he said.

“When I write a character, I try and find out what the wound is, what is that point of pain is, and that sort of helps me get inside them. Once you really inhabit a character, you really just have to let them go.”

He said that knowing the characters makes it easy to figure out what comes next, because the active choices each one makes creates deeper and deeper holes to fall into, and that abyss creates the story.

That process has garnered Irani some of Canada’s top literary and theatre awards and has seen his work continually performed for almost two decades.

His works, both as a playwright and a novelist have been highly praised by critics. His novel, The Song of Kahunsha, was shortlisted for CBC’s Canada Reads in 2007 where it was defended by novelist Donna Morrissey.

The initial run of Bombay Black, which premiered in Toronto in 2006, garnered him four Dora Awards from the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts. Buffoon, his latest play, was awarded two Doras after its Toronto run.

Performances in Hindi transformed the play into its current form

Bombay Black went on to have acclaimed runs in other Canadian cities including Vancouver. In India, it led to a rewrite of a portion of the script to lend more authenticity to the characters.

“We had it translated, and it was performed in Hindi in India, in Bombay, and Delhi, and that’s when I made one major change to the script,” Irani said.

“There was something about hearing the play in a different language. In the actual language in which these characters might speak in, in their daily lives, and that’s when something made the play more grounded for me. It made it completely real, and it was rooted in reality.

“So even though the initial Toronto premiere was fantastic, it was very poetic and musical, I found the play found its final form in another language.”

Although theatre critics picked up on that, calling the play a reflection of modern India, Irani doesn’t necessarily agree with it.

“I don’t know if it’s a reflection of modern India. I don’t really think that’s my intention,” he said.

“There’s an element of what I witnessed growing up in the 90s and early 2000s in the underground culture of bar dancing, which is what prompted me to write this play.”

Production coming to the Martha Cohen Theatre

He said that it’s the enduring human element that has made the play timeless, and has connected audiences to it for decades.

Irani’s goal, he said, was to make a dent in someone’s consciousness after watching a performance. That means following the lives of characters that exist in a very different world than the one most Canadians live in.

“You want audiences to be transformed in some way. I want them to come to the theater and experience something that makes them go home and maybe talk about it or think about it,” Irani said.

“Maybe weeks later something from the play shows up in your own mind and soul. But in the moment, I want them to be engaged in the theater.”

Bombay Black plays at the Martha Cohen Theatre from March 7 through March 19, with a fully masked performance on March 11. Tickets are available at albertatheatreprojects.com/whats-on/bombay-black.