Reality on stage: For Nirbhaya and the rest
South African director Ya l Farber has made heads turn with her critically acclaimed play, Nirbhaya, based on the eponymous December 16 Delhi gang rape case. It recently won The Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. Kanika Sharma speaks to producer-actor Poorna Jagannathan, via an email interview on how her initiative has stirred international audiences with Farber's de facto play
Tell us about the title of the play. How did it figure as a story that you wanted to do?
The play is a direct, theatrical response to the young Delhi girl’s brutal rape and subsequent death. When she died, for me personally, the hope was replaced by grief and anger. And, I wasn’t only raging against the rapists; I was raging against every person who didn’t stop for her when she was thrown out of the bus and laid on the road, the policemen who didn’t want to carry her to a vehicle because she was covered in blood; the hospital staff who took their time attending to her…everyone. But at some point, I realised the silences that I had kept and that we keep as a society make us deeply complicit in manifesting this sort of violence.
Yael Farber, a powerhouse director is known for pithy plays that arouse reaction. How did you and Farber get together for this seminal play?
Seven years ago, I watched a testimonial play of Yael’s called Amajuba in New York City (NYC). You actually don’t watch Yael’s plays; you witness truth on stage like you’ve never seen before. I’d never forgotten that experience. It was the most compelling theatre I’d ever seen and it was deeply political — she’s an iron fist in a velvet glove. I had followed her work and a couple of years later, a mutual friend introduced us on Facebook. When she died, it seemed that everywhere in India, women were breaking their silences. What happened on that bus wasn’t an anomaly but an explosive manifestation of routine sexual violence coupled with a culture of no accountability. Yael and I had to get the truth to be represented on stage powerfully and poetically. We started a conversation late December about creating a testimonial piece. I put a workshop together in February and by then, Yael quit her full-time job as Head of Directing at a University in Montreal, and came down to Mumbai for a month. We started exploring what a play might look like. Soon after, the Assembly Festival, (who are one of the biggest producers at the Edinburgh Fringe), came on board as producers for Nirbhaya.
Coming to the content in the play...how does it include varied stories - some that gain media attention and others that are lost out on the fringes?
Yael has explored a range of sexual violence with this play: violence that ranges from what we call ‘eve teasing’ that is considered routine (like getting grabbed and groped on, say a bus), to more serious violations: rape, dowry burning and child sexual abuse. The Delhi girl’s story is a part of the play, but serves as well as a catalyst. Nirbhaya is, in large part, a testimonial play. It uses her as a framing device; her story bookends our testimonials. Her rape and death serves as a trigger for each one of us to come forward and break our silences.