Mehta photo credit Alex_Waterhouse-Hayward
by Julia Polinsky
Mehta’s excellent performance, which incorporates dance, storytelling, and
vivid characterizations, will tug at your heart
Mehta’s vibrant solo show, Honour:
Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan, combines the liveliness of
Bollywood and the mythic grandeur of the Mahabharata. Director Mark
Cirnigliaro makes the most of Mehta’s excellent performance, which incorporates
dance, storytelling, and vivid characterizations. Antje Ellerman’s spare set
could have used better lighting; often, the performer was hard to see. Monica
Kapoor’s gorgeous choreography suits Chetan Davadra’s evocative music.
Honour tells the sad story of a young girl coming of age, trapped in an
abhorrent fate. In Dipti Mehta’s play, that young girl lives in a whorehouse in
Mumbai, trapped into sex work by her mother, who herself was sold into the
brothel by her own parents.
Rani, though still a virgin, has been trained all her life to become a
prostitute. She wants a non-brothel life, as a teacher or a doctor; her mother,
Chameli, expects that her daughter will be a prostitute, and nothing else.
Cultural expectations are what they are, and Mehta makes clear that Rani’s social
status is so low that she can never marry. Everyone in the show, from pimp to
priest, takes it as a given that Rani will be a prostitute like her mother; she
has no choice.
of the show centers around the sale of Rani’s “honour” – her virginity -- and
the different ways differing characters look at it. At 16, it’s time for Rani
to put away childish dreams, and start to practice her profession. As the show
unfolds, there are, alas, no surprises; Rani ends up living the life other
people intend for her, and in a brief epilogue, her older and more cynical self
speaks directly and feelingly to the audience.
Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan requires a great deal of
audience attention, as Mehta morphs from character to character – her verbal
tics and tricks can be difficult to interpret, at first. As the ear warms to
her voice, it becomes easier to understand what’s being said, which is often in
Hindi (a small glossary appears in the program). And sometimes being said by a
character whose vocal and physical mannerisms are so broad that it requires a
lot of work from the audience to understand what Meena, or Shyam, or Pandit
Rama says, even in English. It’s worth the work, though. Rani’s story tugs at
our hearts, thanks to Mehta’s splendid performance.
As the solo artist, in all
the play’s conversations, Mehta does a terrific job of switching from character
to character. In particular, she is astonishing when she embodies the fight
between the eunuch, Meena, and the teenage pimp, changing lightning fast
between one body language, one posture, one behavior, one voice, and BAM! To
the other. You’d swear there were two people on the stage, even though you can
see only one Dipti Mehta.
intentionally wields theater as a weapon in the social justice wars, and Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai
Courtesan is as much a polemic as an entertainment. The show has made
several appearances in festivals and at theaters around the country, and will
likely make more; Mehta created Honour
to raise awareness, give sex workers a voice, and break down social stigmas
surrounding them. That work will be necessary for a long
time to come.
Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan
and perfomed by Dipti Mehta
Performing Arts Center
Lexington Avenue, New York, NY