Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
When I requested an interview with Anusree Roy, I had imagined a specific process. I’d ask her some questions about her first play for young audiences, Sultans of the Street, receiving its world premiere at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. She’d give me her answers, and I’d quickly post a pithy Q and A. Simple and efficient. After all, as a multi-award winning playwright, actor and librettist, her answers would be spot-on, and I wouldn’t possibly have a word to add.
And then I saw the play…
Immediately, Camellia Koo’s inventive set of fabric and flats recalled claustrophobic Kolkata alleyways and building fronts. Rainbow-hewed saris billowing as if out of windows or draped over the wrought-iron railings of verandas transported me back to my grandparents’ home in north Kolkata. I could almost hear the cacophony of the street vendors hawking their wares, the relentless cry of the crows and the narrow, pungent streets thronged with people, many of them wide-eyed, chatty children, like the 4 “sultans” of this play.
When the play began, I knew for certain that there was nothing simple about this story. And clear-minded and precise though Roy’s answers were, my initial plan of the straightforward Q and A wouldn’t do justice to the richness of her themes: sibling dynamics, optimism in the face of despair, the consequence of choices, the significance of education, poverty and servitude, greed and corruption, as well as resourcefulness, courage and determination in the face of dire odds.
All in a fast-moving and compelling 80 minutes.
The question I kept coming back to was, “who will save the children?” In the world ofSultans of the Street, two orphaned siblings have been taken in by a distant aunty (played with an understated menace by Zorana Sadiq) who has them earn their keep by begging on the streets dressed as the Hindu god Krishna and his devotee Radha. Resourceful manager that she is, she takes their earnings, telling them that she is saving it for their school tuition, and gives them a daily allowance of 5 rupees to eat, plus advice to stay away from the “moustache man”.
What can 5 rupees buy? Both children are perpetually hungry, and even so older sister Mala often gives her share to her younger brother Chun Chun. Having implicit faith in Aunty’s benevolence, the children dream only of one day going to school: Mala (played with a blazing street savvy by Mina James) to learn to dance, and the idealistic Chun Chun (Richard Lee), to fulfil his dream of becoming the best mathematician in the history of ever. But is Aunty really looking after these children’s interests?
The play centres on this question. In the words of the playwright, “the play explores the power dynamics between adults and kids, where the kids have to work hard to gain their power while negotiating a complicated world.” And it is complicated… As we discover, begging is not just about loyalty to one’s saviour. Otherwise, how could two “rich” brothers Ojha (Colin Doyle) and Prakash (Ali Momen) also get mired in this world of servitude and poverty? Their interactions, costumed as Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati as they compete to carve out their own begging territory, provide some of the most comic yet thought-provoking parts of the play.
Through her inclusion of Shiva and Parvati, as well as Radha and Krishna, Roy seamlessly interweaves references to Hindu mythology to inspire her themes. “I chose these Gods,” she says, “because they are Hindu Gods who have a lot of history and story with power struggle and love. The very concept of good over evil is rooted in so many stories in Hinduism.” On a basic level, the characters’ business model is rooted in the struggle of passersby desiring to be blessed by these gods . . . and simultaneously fearing to be cursed by them.
And where are the real gods who might look over these children in peril? Roy explains that in all of her plays, she works towards exploring the reality of the world that she is writing about. And what about the children in the audience, like my own, who were at once, eager to see the play, and also nervous about seeing such a harsh reality? (The beggar children of Kolkata is far beyond their frame of reference). “There is a sense of practicality in everything I write,” explains Roy, “but I had to make a conscious choice in this play to infuse it with hope. I didn’t want to shy away from the darkness, but I also wanted to balance it with light. Yes, the world that these kids in my play live in is dark,but it is also filled with fearless determination.”
So these children costumed as gods – who in the course of the play discover what they are made of – are already, or are becoming – god-like, within. Whether choosing ingredients for the perfect pao bhaji (street food), or choosing whether to confront or cower, their destiny is in their choices. The omniscient pao-bhaji wallah (another star turn by Zorana Sadiq), who knows all and sees all comings and goings, and waxes lyrical about the secret to the perfect pao bhaji, knows this. And so, clearly, does Roy. She fervently believes in the possibility of making social change through art. Change is her hope for children in the audience when they encounter the serious themes Sultans of the Street explores, and their compassionate yet unsentimental depiction by the playwright and director Nina Lee Aquino. Says Roy, “I would love for the kids who come see this show to walk away with a desire to stand up for themselves and their peers and friends. Where they have more confidence in their choices and know their rights.”
So perhaps, to answer my original question, it is the children who can save themselves. Certainly, as Roy notes in her program note, the culturally diverse cast portraying her characters should remind us of the fragility – as well as the strength – of all children, everywhere. “I hope that the kids who come to see the play can learn about the power of choices and how we all have courage inside.”
What: Sultans of the Street, written by Anusree Roy and directed by Nina Lee Aquino
Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, 416.862.2222
When: Running until May 15, 2014
Who: Ages 8 and up
More about Anusree Roy: theatrejonesroy.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya, 2014