A look at the international award-winning play Nirbhaya

Published: 17 November, 2013 14:32 IST | Rinky Kumar |

Helmed by South Africa-born director Yael Farber, it is not just another work on the horrific December 6 Delhi gang-rape

In fact, it takes the incident as a starting point to enact real-life testimonials of individuals who have been assaulted — urging people to speak up about sexual violence. The powerful piece received an overwhelming response when it premiered at the Edinburgh Festival this August. With the production finally scheduled to premiere in Mumbai early next year, cast members including Ankur Vikal, Sapna Bhavnani, Priyanka Bose and Sneha Jawale, talk about how they overcame personal battles to share their own experiences of dealing with assault, how the play helped them evolve as individuals and why they have started a crowdfunding campaign hoping to raise money to stage the piece. 

December 24, 2000. Thirty-year-old Sneha Jawale was making tea at her Mumbai flat when her husband and his brother doused her in kerosene and set her alight. As the flames engulfed her, she shrieked for help. Her husband panicked and rushed her to the hospital. When Jawale gained consciousness, she learnt that he had told everyone that a short circuit had caused the fire. 

Her fault was that she refused to satiate her husband’s and in-laws’ endless dowry demands. Her husband sought divorce from her and didn’t allow her to meet their son. Jawale fought for her son’s custody for six years. But her husband refused to comply. Today Jawale has moved on. She is a tarot card reader who writes dialogues for Marathi serials. But when she sees her reflection in the mirror, the memories of that day haunt her as she suffered burns on her face and neck.

The cast of Nirbhaya performs the piece at Edinburgh Festival 

Making their voices heard
This August, Jawale shared her story with the audience at Edinburgh Festival, the world’s largest arts festival, in London. She was not alone. She was joined by four other women on stage — actors Poorna Jagannathan, Priyanka Bose, Sapna Bhavnani and Japjeet Kaur along with co-actor Ankur Vikal. The group of six was staging acclaimed South Africa-born writer-director Yael Farber’s new play Nirbhaya. Primarily based on the horrific December 16 gang rape in New Delhi, where a physiotherapy student and her male friend were subject to abject brutality on a moving bus, the piece features testimonials of the cast members where they share how each of them have been subjected to assault in their lives. Through their accounts, Nirbhaya attempts to crack open the silence that currently follows violence perpetrated against women across the world.

In the play, while one of the actors describes being abused as a nine-year-old, another one says, “I learnt to leave my body behind,” describing what it’s like to be groped in a bus. Another recalls being beaten by her father and then being subject to marital rape.

Paving a new path
After the Dehi case, Farber posted a message on Facebook that stated, “This could have been my sister, my mother, my daughter, myself.” Her message was spotted by actor Poorna Jagannathan. The duo started talking online about the attack. Jagannathan invited Farber to come to India and work on a play that would motivate people to speak about their experiences. Together they sought performers who were survivors of sexual violence and who were prepared to tell their personal stories. After they finalised the cast, the group underwent intensive workshops for six weeks in New Delhi. They started off by talking about how they were wronged in some way. Vikal says, “Each day one of us would tell our story. Yael would write it down, we would rehearse it and then move on to the next story.” It was an uphill task for the actors to share their darkest secrets. Bhavnani adds, “Imagine telling a stranger what you have buried deep inside. I underwent hypnosis to talk about my story. But what motivated us was that the play is about letting go off the shame.”

(Left to right) Sneha Jawale, Priyanka Bose, Sapna Bhavnani and Ankur Vikal. Pic/ Bipin Kokate 

While all the women tell their stories, Vikal plays various male characters in the play. So at one point, he is the gang-rape victim’s friend, at another point her tormentor, in another instance he is the man feeling up a woman on the bus. He says he knew it would be a tough piece but was ready to take up the challenge. “All art can’t be entertaining. We need that kind of art too, which makes people uncomfortable,” he says The women admit that it wasn’t easy to open up to Vikal. There were times when they hated him. But Bhavnani says his sensitivity enabled all of them to trust him. “When we were performing in London, he and I shared adjacent rooms. We would end up talking to each other across the wall. When Yael heard us, she exclaimed, “Are you his mother, sister or girlfriend?’ That was the kind of relationship we shared. I got through with Ankur’s help,” she says.

Breaking boundaries
Edinburgh Fringe production company, Assembly Theatre, came on board as producers while the play was still being created. At Edinburgh, Nirbhaya won three awards: The Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, The Scotsman’s Fringe First Award and the Herald Angel Award. Audiences openly wept and sought the performers after each show to share their own stories of sexual violence, or to simply thank them for their courage and leading the way in breaking the silence.

Bose says, “It was a gratifying experience. We suspended ourselves in front of the audience. People would walk up to us and say, ‘Sorry for what happened to you and thank you for sharing your story with us.’ They would hug us and cry.”

The cast admits that being a part of Nirbhaya has changed their lives. Bose says, “I have always spoken my mind. But after this experience I have become stronger.” Vikal says, “I’m a non-confrontational person. After the play I have managed to be less awkward and less fearful.”

After 32 shows in London, plans are now afoot to stage Nirbhaya in India early next year. The team has resorted to crowd funding to ensure that there are no producers or sponsors who will expect profit or water down the play’s message. The campaign, which started in October, has managed to raise £42,250 out of the goal of £50,000. The cast hopes to raise the money by November 20 when the campaign ends. “We want to stage the play across the country and build a support structure that will help people to come forward and discuss their stories,” says Bose.

To contribute for Nirbhaya’s cause, log on to www. kickstarter.com/projects/nirbhaya/nirbhaya-award-winning-human-rights-theatre-india

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