Films have seldom done justice to women, but theatre (and literature) have created interesting female characters — women of many shades and strengths. Women in theatre are not necessarily superhuman, but they are not standard issue characters either.
At the Prithvi Festival earlier this month, Umrao reappeared on the stage in the form of a new production, Purva Naresh’s adaptation of Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s novel Umrao Jaan Ada, about the famed 19th century Lucknow courtesan and poetess. Directed by Hidayat Sami, with Neetu Chandra playing the part, the play follows the story faithfully, but Purva has added some interesting feminist touches. It is difficult to get Rekha as Umrao (in the Muzaffar Ali film) out of mind, but the production steers clear of that image.
Both the film and the play make the point of the loneliness of the tawaif’s life once she is past her prime, but also underline that in a strictly patriarchal and purdah-bound society, the tawaif had many advantages over the wife of a nobleman. Access to education, music and dance and freedom to travel. In one scene of the play Umrao asks the kotha madam who raised her, “When will women finally be free,” and Badi Bi responds by saying that she has more independence than most women.
After heartbreak, rejection by her family, and the death of the outlaw she loves, Umrao asks her childhood companion Gauhar if women will be free in another 100 years, “Maybe 150,” he replies. And she hopes her wish will come true.
A century and a half (or more) later women in society and in theatre are facing more or less the same issues — mainly freedom of choice.
Sunil Shanbag picked some female protagonists from well-known 20th century stage plays in a production titled Classics Redux: Scenes of Love, Longing and Loneliness. Not surprisingly, the strongest of the heroines turns out to be Tagore’s Giribala. She was the protagonist of a short story, a woman almost abandoned by her husband, who is enamoured by the theatre, in particular, an actress called Lavanga. Giribala is one of the few women of her time who manages to rebel, breaking out of the shackles of class and gender, while women in plays written years later still flounder.
Mohan Rakesh’s Adhe Adhure written in 1968 was way ahead of its times and almost revolutionary for its portrayal of a middle-class working woman, who does whatever it takes to keep her dysfunctional family together. In 1968, family roles dictated that the husband be the breadwinner, the wife, the homemaker and the children fall into a socially acceptable mould. But Savitri’s husband is jobless and her children are straining at the leash. Even today (and there has been a recent production by Lillete Dubey), Savitri is a wonderfully imagined character, who probably grows more sympathetic as time passes. Years ago, she would have been considered negative because she is not docile. Today, as society inches forward towards gender parity, she is clearly a woman to admire.
Mahesh Elkunchwar wrote Raktapushpa in 1971, also a period too early to portray female angst on stage — and not the kind of angst caused by failed romance. In Raktapushpa the middle-aged protagonist is grappling with the loss of a young son, her own youth slipping away, leaving her confused about her relationship with her husband and a tension between her and her teenage daughter, caused by the presence of a young paying guest. A play, that too one written by a man, dared to look into the mind and sexuality of a woman and even discuss a then taboo subject like menopause.
Vijay Tendulkar’s explosive Sakharam Binder came a year later, in which a macho Sakharam picks up cast off women, gives them shelter, uses them till he pleases and then sends them off with little money, a sari and a ticket to wherever they want to go. He is only marginally better than the men who treat their women like property, in that the women have the option to leave any time the arrangement ceases to work for them. Sadly, this rejection of social norms and the legal bonds of marriage do not really free the women — neither the mousy, submissive Laxmi, nor the loud, violent Champa. The boisterous, foul-mouthed play hurtles towards inevitable tragedy. Not even Tendulkar could envision a happily-ever-after for a man like Sakharam.
Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana, Badal Sircar’s Evam Indrajit and Varsha Adalja’s Mandodri form the rest of Shanbag’s selection (the pieces strung together deftly by writer Sapan Saran), making for a piece of theatre that gets one thinking. There are women in Indian literature and theatre who defy stereotype, but they hardly ever find their way into the popular culture of television and cinema, where they are still unequal to the men in every way. The greatest film role ever written for a woman is still considered to be Mother India — the goddess like woman who made it difficult for generations of women after her to deal with expectations of virtue and moral perfection.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator