Review: Behind the Moon

by Lynn on March 8, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Toronto, Ont. Until March 19.

Written by Anosh Irani

Directed by Richard Rose

Set and costumes by Michelle Tracey

Lighting by Jason Hand

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Ali Kazmi

Husein Madhavji

Vic Sahay

A beautiful, aching play called Behind the Moon by Anosh Irani. About the immigrant experience, loyalty, brotherhood, faith, dreams and rude awakenings.

The Story and production. We are in a small Mughlai restaurant in Toronto. Mughlai refers to a kind of South Asian cooking with lots of spices, nuts etc. A sign outside the restaurant says the food is Halal which means food that is made of ingredients permitted under Islamic law, as defined by the Quran. There is also a large tree branch outside the restaurant that shakes when the wind is up.

Designer Michelle Tracey has designed a functional restaurant with a few tables and chairs, for sit-down business. But the restaurant is mainly for take-out. The food is in trays in a glassed-in display case.

Ayub is the person who runs the restaurant, although he does not own it, and cooks the food. When the play opens Ayub is diligently cleaning the glass of the display case. He is furious at the customers who put their hands on the glass, even though he has asked them not to.

The owner of the restaurant, Qadir Bhai, has insisted that Ayub keep the place spotless and the floor so shiny that he can see his reflection in the tiles. It’s after hours and Ayub is cleaning the glass.

Jalal is a taxi driver who was in the neighbourhood and came in for some Indian food. It was urgent he had to have Indian food. Ayub is reluctant to serve him because it’s after hours. But Jalal is so persuasive and persistent in his need that Ayub relents.

The next day we meet the successful owner of the restaurant, Qadir Bhai. He’s a quiet man but it’s clear that he has a great effect over Ayub. All Qadir Bhai keeps telling Ayub is to keep the place spotless, so that he can see his reflection in the tiles on the floor.  Qadir Bhai knows Ayub can cook. He just needs him to keep the place clean.

All three men represent three variations of the immigrant story.  Qadir Bhai is the rich restaurant owner, originally from India who immigrated and is a success. He owns restaurants in Toronto He is in negotiations to open a restaurant in Montreal.

He’s just found out that his son is engaged to someone named ‘Cindy’ which suggests that she’s not South Asian. This is something Qadir Bhai has to get used to. He keeps telling Ayub that he is doing him a favour as payback for something Ayub’s father did for him. Meaning Qadir Bhai brought Ayub over from India to Canada to cook and run this small take-out place.  Ayub left his wife and family in India to earn money to bring them over. But that was four years ago and Ayub is desperately homesick and wants to go home to see his wife. Qadir Bhai is a smooth talker and tells Ayub that isn’t possible for him to go home at the moment, but he (Qadir Bhai) is working hard on Ayub’s papers for permanent status. We get a sense that something is not quite right here. 

Jalal came to Canada with his wife and daughter for a better life and he worked hard too. But something devastating happened and his wife moved back to India. Jalal drives a cab and was prepared to do something drastic that night, but he saw Ayub’s restaurant and was determined to get some Indian food so he could depend on something familiar, namely the Indian food he ate back home.

While the immigrant experience is common to the three men, the experiences varied. Jalal came to Canada for a better life and not just to make money at any cost. Jalal is a erudite man. He is grateful for what he has and heart-broken for what he lost. He keeps coming back to Ayub’s restaurant in gratitude for helping him with a new start. To show his appreciation of Ayub, Jalal gives Ayub  an expensive hand-made rug. 

Ayub is there under the patronage of Qadir Bhai, but as time goes on it’s clear Qadir Bhai is not all he’s made out to be. Ayub’s story is revealed and it’s clear that his story gets murkier and murkier. He’s in that restaurant to such an extent that he’s not seeing anything of Canada. He’s only seeing the kitchen.  Meeting Jalal is a good thing for Ayub because he needed an ally who could stand up for him in his own way. He needed to get his faith back.

The worst thing to happen for a restaurant would be to see a rat on the premises. In a way, Ayub is obsessed with this thought and eventually imagines himself trapped like a rat in that place. That becomes the turning point for him.

Anosh Irani is such a vivid writer. He has written of the immigrant experience before in his novels and plays. He knows about the loneliness and isolation first hand, when he emigrated from India to British Columbia to study.

In Behind the Moon Anosh Irani takes a look at the immigrant experience from three points of view, each beautifully expressed. It’s a play full of humour, but also heart-break, disappointment and resolve. Anosh Irani has a beautiful way with language and story-telling.

Again, it’s a beautiful piece of theatre that squeezes the heart. Richard Rose directs this with a sure hand and a sense of the humour and the emotion that surrounds the characters. Ali Kazmi plays Ayub. Ayub has a self-deprecating sense of humour. When he is rubbing the glass to clean it, the effort is real, intense and determined.  Ayub’s whole work effort is in that simple task of cleaning the glass. When Ayub is in the presence of Qadir Bhai he seems to tilt forward with his head slightly bowed as if in supplication, he is so eager to please him. As Ayub, Ali Kazmi gets more and more obsessed at his position. We slowly see him go off the rails. It’s a beautifully controlled performance and it’s heartbreaking.

As Jalal, Husein Madhavji is more contained in the revelation of his moving story. He is quietly determined in helping Ayub and certainly when he finally meets Qadir Bhai. Jalal is the true friend that Ayub needs and vice versa.

And as Qadir Bhai, Vik Sahay is every inch the successful man. He dresses well, albeit casually, and moves slowly and with deliberation. The other two men seem to move in quick time as if jumping through hoops. Qadir Bhai knows that he has Ayub under his thumb and he keeps him there with feigned concern and assurances that things will be fine. How one manipulates the other is cringe-worthy and the point in this instance.

Comment. Anosh Irani slowly reveals each character’s story, peeling away each layer of the work. At the end of Behind the Moon we have seen the effects of immigration on these three men, in a play that is funny, heart-squeezing, multi-layered, detailed and deeply felt. Terrific play and production.

Tarragon Theatre Presents:

Plays until March 19, 2023.                                     

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