'Agnes of God' producer's estranged husband dragged into controversy

Catholic Secular Forum pressurises theatre producer Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal’s husband to convince venue to pull out of hosting controversial play’s premier tonight

With today going in favour of freedom of free speech, theatre director Kaizaad Kotwal and his mother, veteran actress and producer Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal are busy at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Nariman Point, rehearsing for this evening’s by-invite-only premiere of their new play, 'Agnes of God'.

Caught in controversy over the last few days, the future of an adaptation of John Pielmeier’s play based on the true story of a nun who gives birth to a child and claims she is a virgin, looked bleak. The Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) had called for a ban, arguing that it was an inaccurate representation of the clergy, who are committed to a life of celibacy.

Earlier this morning, both Kaizaad and CSF’s secretary general Joseph Dias met Maharashtra’s Minority Affairs Minister Eknath Khadse, but the government refused to stall the staging since the play has a certification. Khadse said the play would be videographed and if objectionable portions were found, an appropriate decision would be taken after involving both parties.

Dr Navroze Kotwal, Agnes of God producer Mahabanoo’s estranged husband. Pic: Tushar Satam

By afternoon, in a strange twist of events, Mahabanoo’s estranged husband, Dr Navroze Kotwal was dragged into the controversy. Protesters claimed that he was willing to help stall the staging. When mid-day met Dr Kotwal, he clarified that he had received a call from a woman who didn’t identify herself but said she was a supporter of CSF. She told him, a mob was waiting outside Khadse’s office, hoping to barge in and demand a ban. “She said it was likely that my wife and son would be arrested. I obviously didn’t want that to happen.”

Dr Kotwal claims he hasn’t spoken to his son in nine years and three months, so there was no question of agreeing to the protesters’ request to call Kaizaad and convince him to pull out. “I refused to do it. I haven’t seen the play or read it. I am neither in favour nor opposed to it. They drew their own conclusions,” said Dr Kotwal.

He was also told to dial industrialist Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Trusts, promoters of the arts center, and convince NCPA authorities to pull out as venue partner.

Advocate Joseph Sodder of the Association of Concerned Catholics, who is backing the ban, confirmed a telephonic conversation with Kotwal. “When I called him this morning, he told me he doesn’t want his son to be arrested, and asked if there’s anything he can do to stop it. Perhaps, he developed cold feet later,” he said.

Agnes of God
The poster of the 1985 movie 'Agnes of God' starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly.

When informed about his father’s involvement, Kaizaad said, “It is odd that they approached my father, but I am grateful to him for not succumbing to pressure.”

Calling Khadse and Shaina NC a “counter-voice that paved a democratic way” for a resolution, he said, “With a censor clearance on our side, the protesting groups have been advised to choose legal recourse or approach the censor board. As a reconciliatory measure, we offered to withdraw the phrase ‘immaculate conception’ from our play. But the Catholic protestors are determined to file an FIR. A lawyer from their end threatened me, saying he will ensure I meet the same fate as Karan Johar and Ranbir Singh after the AIB Roast.”

'Agnes of God' was originally meant to open on Monday at Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Breach Candy, but the show was cancelled by auditorium authorities. On September 30, Kaizaad had tweeted: “Facing threats of arrest, imprisonment, harm to body and property for staging play AGNES OF GOD.”

Reports suggested that the Archbishop of Mumbai had objected to the portrayal of the nun in the poster, but was not in favour of the ban.

(With inputs from Benita Fernando)

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