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Mumbai theatre group asks why you aren't angry enough about women's issues

Done with candlelight marches following Jyoti Pandey's rape? A new project by Mumbai theatre group Mirror Merchants will ensure that moving on becomes very difficult

"We," says Arnesh Ghose, as we sit around a table at a Lower Parel restaurant, "are not p***ed enough." "We staged Asylum on December 16, 2014 and I asked the audience what the day marked. No one remembered. Every time a rape happens, we change our profile picture to a candle and then move on. This is not what we should move on from… If you want to move on, move on from a break up."

Actors Suhas Chatkara and Manvi Ranghar with Mirror Merchants’ founder Arnesh Ghose. PIC/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Actors Suhas Chatkara and Manvi Ranghar with Mirror Merchants’ founder Arnesh Ghose. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

Ghose, the 26-year-old founder of four-year-old theatre group, Mirror Merchants, is now channeling anger into the Charpai Project, with a long-term view of creating a platform to discuss gender and sexuality over a charpai and chai. Before that, however, comes a series of web videos titled, Ball Talks, and a slew of events where participants will share poems and art around the larger theme. And, then there is the play which will be staged mid-February at a venue in the suburbs yet to
be finalized.

A still from Charpai Project’s Ball Talks, Episode One, titled “There’s nothing sexy about a vagina.” If the video, featuring  Sanket Sharma and Aritro Rudraneil Banerjee, enrages you, then the idea has hit home
A still from Charpai Project’s Ball Talks, Episode One, titled “There’s nothing sexy about a vagina.” If the video, featuring  Sanket Sharma and Aritro Rudraneil Banerjee, enrages you, then the idea has hit home

The stories — Khol Do, Pussy Riot (yes, named after the Russian band), Do Boond Roshni Ki and The Idiots — also explore the
same theme. In two plays the audience become witness as Manvi Ranghar, a 21-year-old student of literature from Jai Hind college, enacts a rape. The music video for the play, titled Bhaayo, is now online and discusses India's rape statistics. Four every hour; more than one every 20 minutes. "But, we didn’t want to relegate it to a statistic.

"This enactment is raw. It’s about a woman who is living through her rape and what she is going through. The audience will be forced to look her in the eye." Yet, says Ghose, there will be no man on the stage. "This is not meant to be titillating. The woman will be narrating her experience from memory, from penetration to seeing blood and her clothes being ripped," he says. "It’s going to be uncomfortable." That, however, is the point. The play also includes original songs whose lyrics have been penned by an Urdu poet from Bhopal, Omair Shahid.

Ranghar says while initially, parts of the rehearsal for the enactment did terrify her, she reminded herself to stay remote from character. "If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to do justice to it. It made me more empowered," she says.

In Do Boond Roshni Ki, a story that revolves around a prostitute who falls in love with a eunuch, Suhas Chatkara plays the transgender. For the 21-year-old who joined the group in 2014 after a chance audition for Asylum while he was a student of Hinduja College, this was an eye-opener. Handed out a character and the script, Chatkara and other actors had to go about their own research for a backstory. Chatkara spent time with Mumbai’s hijdas. "People are afraid of them. They are either treated with disgust or fear. After meeting and speaking to them, I realised they are misunderstood."

Ghose has another rant (and he is fine with the term; in fact he’d be happier if everyone ranted a little more). "Why is that eunuchs are equated with women and wear women’s clothing? This happens only in India and China. Elsewhere, they dress as men.

Why is it that if any part of the male anatomy is considered ‘lesser’ than what it should be, the man is immediately equated with a woman?"

Theatre, he believes, is the last bastion of a non-commercial art form and it should be used as such. "I am not saying, don’t make money. But, why can’t Ashvin Gidwani, whose Blame it On Yashraj has completed nearly 100 shows, support a play like Nirbhaya (Yael Farber’s award-winning script)? That show had to go to Edinburgh to be recognised, when in fact it should have been taken to every village in India."

What irks Chatkara is the misconception surrounding that loaded F word — feminisim. "College students use the word incorrectly. They don’t know its meaning." What does it mean to him? "Equality. But people don’t see it as that."

"And then there are people," chips in Ghose, "who say ‘what about men’s rights’? Suffer 200 years of abuse as minority, and then we can talk about men’s rights. Men have no clue what it means to be a woman."

Even the hush-hush way in which women are forced to talk about menstruation is a concept that those at Mirror Merchants don’t subscribe to. "Here, everyone knows everyone’s ‘dates’. Suhas, in fact, keeps a record. If you need a napkin, say so. We have to show every woman love and respect for the natural process she is going through," he adds.

As we ready to wrap up, Rangkar asks us, "What are your views on this?"

"On women’s rights?"

"Yeah."

Realising that it’s a wide question, Ghose makes it simpler. "On a scale of 1 to 10, how angry are you?"

Think about it.

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