Invisible prison walls
Singer Yesudas was just one of the long list of conservatives who recently commented on women wearing jeans. Somebody else objects to foreign dresses; yet another wants all women to be covered up from head to toe ostensibly to protect them. In some countries women can’t drive; in others they cannot get an education, and the Taliban don’t want women to get out of their homes at all. But, what if a woman is not safe even in her own home?
Watching a new production of Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s A Woman Alone, one of their most popular plays, one is struck once again by how universal their plays are and how similar the condition of women everywhere. The original is in Italian, and it is clear that women in the supposedly modern European country still have to live in a culture of rampant machismo.
In Padatik’s production of A Woman Alone, directed by Mahmud Alam, Sanchayita Bhattacharjee plays the woman with exuberance, with her face painted white and wearing a dull grey dress that reflects the drudgery of her existence in a prison she has not chosen to be in, but has not chosen to escape either
The housewife in A Woman Alone is locked up in her home by her jealous husband. She has everything in terms of consumer goods all the gadgets money can buy, but no freedom. Since there is nobody to talk to all day, she plays music in every room.
Still, is she safe from unwanted male attention? No! A man in the apartment opposite ogles her through binoculars. Another man makes filthy crank calls over the phone. Her husband’s brother, who is bed-ridden with fractures all over his body, but with one free unplastered hand, gropes her. She is forced to look after him, because no nurse wants to deal with a groper. And when it’s none of the above, her infant son keeps howling for her attention.
Her husband has locked her in, because to escape the constant abuse, she had an affair with a young man. Eventually, he turns up at her doorstep, too, with his own demands for love, when she has just about had it with all the harassment.
This part has been played by accomplished actresses all over the world, and it must be a delight to perform, because the character can be played as farcical, or with a sense of rage, tragedy, resignation — any mood and style the director or actress choose to pick.
In the Padatik production from Kolkata, directed by Mahmud Alam, Sanchayita Bhattacharjee plays the woman with a charming exuberance, with her face painted white. On a gloomy set, wearing a dull grey dress that reflects the drudgery of her existence in a prison she has not chosen to be in, but has not chosen to escape either, she still has her wit intact as shares her story with an unseen neighbour in the opposite window. As she says to her confidante, after all the humiliation she endures on a daily basis, she still has to “always be ready… warm, washed, willing and waiting” to fulfil her husband’s sexual demands.
Nobel Prize winning Fo and his collaborator wife Rame’s plays make audiences laugh even as they are squirming with discomfort or confronting their own secret fears. Which is perhaps why some of their plays are so easy to adapt and perform in any language against any cultural backdrop. With its bare bones structure, A Woman Alone says so much about the condition of women. Their equally dark and disconcerting comedy, The Open Couple, is also a favourite of theatre groups and audiences, because it is such an indictment of the hypocrisy, insecurity and dishonesty of a marriage in which the partners are unequal. The husband wants to play the field and insists that the wife accept an open marriage, but is unwilling or unable to accept the situation when she actually takes him up on it.
Stepping outside the realm of domestic gender wars, another Fo play that is popular with theatre groups for its hard-hitting political theme is Accidental Death of an Anarchist. In this play, an alleged anarchist is thrown off from the third floor of a police station, and his death is sought to be passed off as suicide by the cops. The kind of chilling scenario that can take place in any society which allows its law enforcers to go above the law.
With their disturbing humour, Fo and Rame’s plays caution against taking freedom for granted; it is something that has to be fought for, every inch of the way. In A Woman Alone, the housewife’s condition may have been exaggerated, but judging by the increasing violence against women everywhere, they are this close to being imprisoned, if not by physical walls, then by mental ones. Every time a woman is afraid to step out because of the dangers of sexual harassment she might have to face outside, or puts up with violence inside the home for fear or losing out on marital stability, she is locking herself up and throwing away the key.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. You can follow her on twitter @deepagahlot