Exploring Honour

A Mumbai Courtesan in Montréal
  • Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan
  • October 3-6, 2019, Montréal Arts Interculturels (MAI)
  • Montréal, Québec
Exploring Honour

Exploring Honour. Photo by Alex Waterhouse Hayward.

Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan, defies stereotypes, upturns expectations and makes a strong appeal to your humanity.

On stage we see the recreation of a stark, one room home, the bed its centrepiece. Yet long, flimsy, Indian scarves, in different hues, that hang from ropes strung around the space, give it character and whimsy.

Immediately, we are introduced to the two main characters – Rani, a 16-year-old girl, born into the brothel, and Chameli, her not-so-young prostitute mother.

Prostitutes — we've seen a lot of them. In literature, and particularly in cinema, that is. There's the prostitute with the heart-of-gold, there's the frightened, victimised prostitute, often very young, the prostitute as the loose woman; whore, the sassy prostitute, loud and foul-mouthed. Then there's the romanticised version of a prostitute – the classy courtesan.

That said, it is the first time that I saw life in a brothel set in the red-light district of Falkland Road in Bombay/Mumbai, depicted on stage. I am Indo-Canadian, and I was born in Bombay.

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Rani's upcoming "sale" is the thread that runs through the fast-paced, entertaining, often humorous script. Her honour, that is, her virginity, can fetch a very high price from a rich client. This big sale is Chemeli's preoccupation.

Gradually, other characters appear. Meena is a eunuch who is like an aunt to Rani. Shyam, the son of Chameli's pimp, is now learning the ropes to become one himself. Laal, an inebriated, older customer sees everyone in the brothel as fair game, including a blonde, Western filmmaker who remains offstage, and is there to do research. And Pandit Rama, a morally corrupt priest, is called in to give an auspicious date for Rani's sale.

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The play unfolds through music, dance and storytelling, though words remain Honour's main medium. The language is raw, direct and sprinkled with Hindi words and phrases, though a viewer unfamiliar with that language will miss nothing. Expletives are liberally used by Chameli, Rani, Meena and Shyam. This true-to-life depiction made me think that this was one way that people in this world get to express their frustration and hit back at a society.

US-based, former Bombayite, writer-actor, Dipti Mehta, brilliantly plays all the roles, an astonishing feat. This is a very ambitious work — multi-layered and uncompromising. Mehta wants the viewer to be absorbed in Chameli and Rani's world, to see it entirely from within. Equally, she wants to point out everyone's complicity and hypocrisy, including those in the audience, in the incredible exploitation that makes the sex trade the everyday affair that it is.

Speaking to Mehta after the play, she said that the script started out as a mother-daughter story. Indeed, that is still the strong backbone of the piece.

Chemeli comes across, above all, as a mother, deeply concerned about her daughter's future. At age 13, Chameli is sold by her family into the brothel, a "sacrifice" made for the future of her younger siblings. She goes on to defy stereotypes, becoming a savvy businesswoman. She learns to play the game, figuring out how to please and use men. And she trains Rani to become a courtesan, a higher status, better-earning prostitute.

Exploring Honour. Photo by Kyle Rosenberg.

Exploring Honour. Photo by Kyle Rosenberg.

Another triumph is the characterization of the lively Rani. Despite her circumstance, she is a typical teen. Even as she moves towards the role she has been trained for, she shies away from it, at times openly rebellious, at times cajoling. She loves her mother, and she hates her.

Given Mehta's ambition, it would be almost inhuman if she pulled it off perfectly. I found the introduction of the parallel story of Draupadi, in the play, understandable, but not as successful. A key character in the Hindi epic, Mahabharata, Draupadi is a princess born of fire and yet dominated and dishonoured after a polyandrous marriage. The reference to Draupadi seemed to overload the play. Still, too much ambition is preferable to too little.

The play, Mehta said, has continued to evolve over the years. She remembers riding the bus through Bombay's red-light district, many unasked questions on her lips. She was also influenced by Born into Brothels, Calcutta's Red Light Kids, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2005.

She has collaborated with Indian non-profits who work on the sex trade issue and spoken about it on different panels and media. Montréal's Teesri Duniya Theatre, which aims to “change the world, one play at a time”, brought Mehta to Montréal from New York City. Teesri also wanted to make a connection between the sex trade there and here.

Exploring Honour. Photo by Alex Waterhouse Hayward.

Exploring Honour. Photo by Alex Waterhouse Hayward.

After the play, there was a talk-back session that featured Penny Rankin, along with Mehta. Rankin, who started the MTL Anti-Human Trafficking Initiative, revealed that 13.5 is the average age when Canadian girls are approached by pimps. Ninety-three per cent of those who are trafficked in Canada are Canadian born. The average "profit" generated from these sexually exploited women and girls is approximately $280,000 annually. As well, Canada is among the top three countries implicated in the cybersex abuse of children, according to Interpol. Horrifying!

Exploring Honour. Photo by Kyle Rosenberg.

Exploring Honour. Photo by Kyle Rosenberg.

By beautifully humanizing the lives of Chameli, Rani, Meena and Shyam, Honour drives a wedge between the idea and practice of us and them. At the very least, it asks the viewer not to turn away, but to hold your gaze, open your heart and question.

The play has been highly acclaimed in the US and Canada, and I hope that its remarkable journey continues.

Other credits:

  • Director: Mark Cirnigliaro
  • Original Score: Rhythm Tolee
  • Choreography: Monica Kapoor
  • Sound Design: Matt Bittner
  • Costume Consultant: Scott Westervelt
  • Touring Producer: Rohit Chokhani
  • Production Manager: David Perrault-Ninacs
  • Technical Director: David Surette
  • Stage Manager: Sierra Alarie

Veena Gokhale is a freelance writer living in Montreal. An immigrant shape shifter, she started her career as a journalist in Bombay. This "tough, tantalizing" city inspired Bombay Wali and other stories, published by Guernica Editions in 2013. Her novel, Land for Fatimah (Guernica Editions, 2018), is partly inspired by the two years she spent working in Tanzania. View bio.

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