“My daughter, my mother, my sister”
South African playwright and director Yael Farber’s Facebook status in response to the brutal assault and gangrape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi echoed the public sentiment. Public fury poured onto the streets of the capital in December 2012, as the details of the incident rushed in. Six men on a moving bus had held her and a male friend captive for over 90 minutes and taken turns raping her. They had then inserted a metal rod inside her and pulled it out so violently that it took out with it nearly all her intestines. They were stripped, robbed and tossed on to the streets. For the next two hours, they lay on the road naked. Nobody stopped to help.
In the days that followed, the flames of protest against sexual violence engulfed the rest of the country. Politicians scuttled as protesters braved water canons and police batons. Critically injured, she was airlifted to Singapore for treatment but all in vain. On 29 December 2012, the 23-year-old, dubbed by the media as Nirbhaya, breathed her last. But the gripe continued. On the streets, behind closed doors, on the Internet.
What popped up next in Farber’s inbox was a call to arms. “What has happened has broken the banks of what is tolerable. The silence is coming apart, women in India are ready to speak. Come, make a new work that enables us to do that,” said a message from Mumbai-based actor Poorna Jagannathan. Like many others, the Delhi Belly actor has been at the receiving end of sexual violence and admits that she chose to stay silent about it. But when that young woman stepped on that bus, things changed.
“What happened on that bus wasn’t an anomaly,” says Poorna. “It was an explosive culmination of something that happens to women everyday: we get touched, groped, molested, abused almost on a daily basis. By keeping silent about it, we contribute to creating a culture of unaccountability.” Soon, she flew down Farber and her daughter to India and together they began the search for actors who would constitute the cast for a play on the subject. After a list of five performers was drawn out, Farber penned down a script around their individual stories.
With Nirbhaya as the central “inciting incident” and individual testimonies woven around it, the play was an attempt to continue the courage people found in those days after her death to shatter the silence of shame that has for long prevented sexual violence — despite staggering statistics — from entering the public discourse. Five women were now set to take their protest against sexual violence on stage. Most of them were speaking out for the first time.
The play premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August last year and was staged in London earlier this month. It has won the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award, the Scotsman’s Fringe First Award and The Angel Herald Award. Nirbhaya is now being staged across Mumbai, New Delhi and Bengaluru.
“It is good to be home,” says 43-year-old hair stylist Sapna Bhavnani, one of the five members of the cast. But homecoming wasn’t easy. The play was supposed to be brought to India to mark the first anniversary of the Delhi gangrape, but had to be delayed due to paucity of funds. The producers then resorted to crowd-funding to meet the budget requirements. Produced by Poorna and Canadian producer Maragaret Moll, the play is not Farber’s first piece of testimonial work. It is something she has been working on for the past 15 years.
She started her career by producing theatre as a response to real-life events. Her play Amajuba is based on life under the apartheid, and has been put together by using testimonials of five individuals. Farber describes the process of stitching together narratives for Nirbhaya as a complex process full of joy, grief and remembering. “It has left me changed forever,” she says.
“When I first met Farber, I recalled everything that had happened to me, except what it actually was,” says Sapna. “The first battle for me was to say it to myself.” Sapna was gangraped in Chicago at the age of 24. “I was every stereotype who gets raped,” she says. “I was drunk, I was wearing a short skirt and I was walking home alone in the middle of the night.”
Sapna says she chose to stay silent not because she was ashamed of what had happened to her, but a personal dilemma: was she a victim or a survivor? “I chose to stay silent because I didn’t want to be treated like a martyr,” she says. “I wanted to be known for who I am and not for what has been done to me.” Alongside her, are actors Poorna, Priyanka Bose, Rukhsar Kabir and Sneha Jawale, whose husband and in-laws had set her on fire over demands of dowry. All of these actors share their testimonies on stage. “The toughest part about performing in my hometown has been not breaking down, despite knowing that my loved ones are out there in the audience,” adds Sapna.
Actor Ankur Vikal plays all facets of the male character. “My initial reaction to the 16 December incident was shock, denial, anger and then a feeling of impotence,” he says. “I felt the need to bear witness and change myself at the very core of my being. Being a part of this production has broken me on all levels, but I have emerged stronger.”
Farber is aware of the toll it has taken on the actors as they continue to repeat their testimonies on stage to different audiences, but she feels there is nothing more liberating than telling the truth. “The play is a catharsis for me everyday,” says actor Priyanka Bose. “It has helped me speak to myself.”
She spoke to her partner about being at the receiving end of sexual violence for a major part of her life for the first time after she heard of the 16 December gangrape. “By remaining silent, I was being a part of the problem,” she says.
For many like Priyanka, Nirbhaya’s death was a point of no return. Farber was neither interested in sanitising nor sensationalising, what was an event of unimaginable brutality. “The unspeakable suffering of the 23-yearold was facilitated by an entire system that enables perpetrators, protects them and shames the victim into a cone of silence,” she says. And, that is what Nirbhaya brings out. Although the play has been inspired by an incident in India, it has spoken to a global audience. “I and the play very humbly offer the suggestion to break your silence, your apathy, your ignorance. We have an epidemic on our hands and we have to stare it in the eyes and take it on,” is Poorna’s appeal to all those who go to watch the play.
So far, all the shows have been followed by an interaction between the cast and the audience. Several members of the audience have come forth to share their testimonies and thoughts about the issue. “Nirbhaya’s death has brought out the reality that sexual violence against women and children is a global crisis. A brutal death like hers does not have to be in vain and can, in fact be the catalyst for change,” says Farber.