Review: Pyaasa (Theatre Passe Muraille)

Anusree Roy, the written and performer of PyaasaPyaasa is a “stunningly real theatrical experience” on the Toronto stage

Pyaasa, playing now at Theatre Passe Muraille, opens on a shadow-covered stage, which contains only a rusted metal bucket. For the next 50 minutes, the only other entity, prop or otherwise, to grace the stage is Anusree Roy, the playwright and sole actor. As exemplified by these first moments, Pyaasa goes on to tell a complex story with striking simplicity, creating rich characters and a world that is supremely real.

Pyaasa is a one woman show, written and performed by Anusree Roy, that explores the caste system in India from the perspective of it’s most discriminated. It follows a family of the “untouchable” caste, specifically Meera and her young daughter Chaya, as they struggle with jobs, food, and marriage in a system that denies them every opportunity from birth.

The script does a remarkable job of explaining the caste system to a western audience without veering from story into exposition. Going into Pyaasa with only a vague knowledge myself, I never felt that I was lacking the information needed to understand the characters and their story. Especially impressive is that Roy manages this achievement while switching rapidly between English and Hindu throughout.

Roy truly is the life force of the show. With her finely tuned characters, massive energy and ferocity she manages to bring to life a complicated and full world on her own. Whether she’s scrubbing teacups or contemplating her own reflection, she proves that can hold our attention with or without words and in any language due to her hugely expressive yet minutely detailed acting.

It was an appropriate choice for Theatre Passe Muraille to open the remount of Pyaasa on International Women’s Day. Roy has written, with the collaboration of director Thomas Morgan Jones, a story that brings to life the exploitation and abuse that is created by a system that encourages arbitrary discrimination, and particularly its effects on women. We see Meera wage a fierce fight over the line at the water pump and realize that what we in North American consider the most basic of resources is a constant struggle for them. On the flip side there is, more tragically, the abuses and advantages taken against Chaya as a young girl that they have no way to fight against. It is extremely humbling to behold.

Roy’s script doesn’t outright comment on its content. We learn about the caste system along with Chaya, and see for ourselves how those who are forced to the bottom are taken advantage of when it comes to work, education and their own bodies. It allows us as the audience to come to our own conclusions, to be discontented of our own accord. It is not a message veiled as a story, it is a story that conveys a message of reality and disparity.

Pyaasa’s remount is a brilliant opportunity for a talented, Dora Award winning team to once again challenge Toronto audiences to take a raw look at life within the Indian caste system. Pyaasa, in it’s short 50 minutes, will leave you unsatisfied with the world we live in, as only a stunningly real theatrical experience can.


Photo by Michael Copper, of Anusree Roy