Setting the stage for difference

Oct 10, 2013, 01:02 IST | Vikram Phukan

Growing up gay can be traumatic in a cruelly straitlaced world, and theatre can help young voices speak out

In a North Indian hill station, cosily ensconced in a scenic leafy green enclave, a residential school is presenting a West-End-style production of The Lion King, with four hundred schoolboys participating as actors, dancers and musicians. 

Catharsis: Performing as well as participating in theatre workshops can be an outlet for young emotions. (File picture for representation.)

While the scale of the production has been both daunting and galvanizing for the play’s core team (which includes this writer), the most gratifying aspect has been working with children, and looking beyond our blanket assumptions to discover who they really are. Theatre, even at this level, calls for the kind of expressiveness that children are not able to easily summon. To open them up, we organized acting workshops beginning with confessional sessions with the main cast, in which the boys (many of whom had never before spoken to grown-ups as intimately) talked about their whims and aspirations, slowly revealing their fears and prejudices.

Speaking out: A scene from Bombay Talkies, which highlighted the duality of a young boy’s preferences in one of its segments

From within a Pandora’s box of revelations, one theme emerged strongly. Even if ragging has been banned at the school for years now, the victimization of children who may not fit the formula is a reality. Perhaps the opera underlined some of these distinctions. Eleven-year-old Zoheb, who plays the lioness Nala as a child, was revealed as the most consistent bait of schoolyard bullies. A slightly built boy with a graceful gait, Zoheb is naturally vivacious. It makes him a hit in family circles, but at school he only attracts ridicule. Others who had been cast in female parts were similarly tormented. In an almost all-boys school (the senior class took in four girls this semester, in long trousers and lengthy braids, sticking out like blushing geraniums in a sea of testosterone), public indictment along gender lines was commonplace. The easiest slur remained the G-word.

“It is almost like being back at school myself,” says Faraz Ansari, the musical’s 27-year-old director. Ansari has been strongly associated with two recent films with young casts, the whimsical satire Stanley Ka Dabba and the puberty drama Gippi, so he is no stranger to working with children, and has made a flourishing sideline out of directing stage shows for schools. A flamboyant presence, he attracts a lot of attention in the sleepy hamlet with his expressive style and modish attire. At a Value Education class at the school, children singled him out for discussion, before their teacher cut them short while delivering a homily on appreciating the diversity of differences around them. “I can handle attention. Sometimes there is a lynch-mob quality to it. That’s when it becomes a problem.” Ansari sees a bit of himself in Zoheb, and he knows well the journey that lies ahead for the young boy.

Earlier this year, in another centenary production, Bombay Talkies, Zoya Akhtar directed a segment called Sheila Ki Jawaani, which opens into manicured households where smug children attest to their life’s ambitions. One such boy, Vicky (performed with composure by Naman Jain), wants to grow up and become Katrina Kaif (who appears, fairy-like, as herself, hence the film’s title from her popular ‘item’). Akhtar appears to champion an effulgent kind of personal expression -- Vicky applies make-up and stomps about in high heels -- unencumbered by stereotypical notions of gender (for example, the roughshod masculinity of the football field where his father would rather he shone). The film comes across as pure wish-fulfillment, only occasionally letting on the real-life anguish, frustrations and insecurities of children who march to the beat of a different drummer.

It isn’t clear in which direction destiny may lead Vicky (he’s only eight), whether in terms of gender identity or sexuality. His childhood transvestism might well prove to be an endearing quirk to be outgrown, but Akhtar chooses to ignore (as do most people) the pink elephant in the room even if a strong comment is made on the nurturing (or the lack of it) that only parents can provide to a ‘different’ child at this impressionable age.

That said, Bombay Talkies did make a difficult subject accessible, and set the stage for yet another leg of our edification campaign at the school. We decided to screen Ma Vie En Rose for the children. Later, we asked them to write letters to Ludovic, the film’s central character, described by The New York Times as “a dark-eyed misfit who contemplates the world with the serene hauteur of a natural-born diva”. The results were revealing. Wrote 13-year-old Akarsh, “In those drawings you made of your family, as usual you wore a skirt. I hated that, but I realized that a person should do what he feels like, and the more you stop him, the more he’ll do it. But I realized it much later and I’m sorry for blaming you for every little thing.” In another letter, 15-year-old Aditya wrote, “Don’t be angry at your mother, she was just confused and worried about you. PS I like your dance very much. Never stop dancing no matter what people say.”

One of the boys wrote anonymously, “I was very much like you as a kid-very flamboyant, outgoing and expressive. I let no trace of that remain, and built my walls. I struggled with depression. Sounds unlikely for a kid, and people don’t know what true depression is and they joke about it, but I know and have experienced it. At one time I resorted to cutting.”

The letters, some grim, some uplifting, were read out in an impassioned and solemn session that consumed an entire afternoon, and several boys speculated that even if they were to be initially friendly towards a boy like Ludovic, eventually they would keep their distance from him at school out of fear of being ostracized themselves. This was ironic because, for victims of bullying, being let down by people they come to trust can cause more trauma than barbs from bullies which they learn to disregard. Seated in a circle on the stage of the auditorium we used for rehearsals, but with the curtains drawn shut, we had created a safe haven where these revelations seemed like bitter-sweet tales, shared between friends. Elsewhere, they were portents of an alarming problem.

According to CNN, a survey on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students nationwide in America, found that 86 percent of those students reported being verbally harassed, 44 percent physically harassed and 22 percent physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, real or perceived. Dropout levels were higher than the national average, as was the rate of suicide. Closer home, according to a recent report on Rediff, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Indian youth. What proportion of this ‘collateral damage’ are queer children can be anybody’s guess since no national data has ever been collated, which is to be expected given the culture of silence on these matters. Even in post-377 times, LGBT-dedicated helplines in India are still legally constrained from catering to under-18s, leading to the blind-walling of whole generations of vulnerable children, who surely exist in large numbers but are invisibilized. Which is why the hardships in the mainstream sometimes call for special measures. This year marks a full decade of New York’s Harvey Milk School going public in 2003 with a fully accredited curriculum. Starting out in a sandpapered two-room studio in 1985, the high school was established to serve gay, lesbian and transgendered students who have a hard time in other schools, a space that provided as much of an education as a comfort zone, in which students don’t need to conform to oppressive standards of behavior. While this may seem like a kind of segregation which doesn’t really resolve the root problem of bullying, at least the children don’t have to bear the onus of engineering the upheaval of a hate culture. The New York school seems to be thriving. According to CNN, it has a graduation rate of 95 percent (even if comprised entirely of students who were at risk of dropping out due to harassment elsewhere).

Such an utopian refuge may be out of the reach of Indian children. Ultimately, the roiling within must give way to a struggle that is more openly waged, when even small measures can give just the right fillip to soldier on. At the fag end of a long day of rehearsals, young Zoheb engineers a facile personal triumph. Even at his age, he has a fondness for accessorizing - finding little inventive ways to give the staid school uniform a sartorial edge. A silk African stole, in orange and gold, from the morning’s costume tryouts, has caught his fancy. He slips out of the auditorium wearing it proudly like a scarf on a masthead, and unlike other days when he can slink away unnoticed from school via a secluded detour, this time he decides to walk across the open field to the school’s main entrance.

The field has always terrorized him, worrying him sick each time footballs came bounding in his direction, almost on cue, as if chasing quarry of choice. His feeble attempts to retrieve them has always been jeered at by the rowdier kids on the ground. With his just-acquired ‘lioness’ finery giving him a boost, for once the nudging and winking doesn’t scorch his back as he crosses the playground undaunted, gallantly feminine but still a boy. In our sessions with the cast, Zoheb once said, rather profoundly for a Class V kid, ‘I’ve learned that what people say must be taken in from one ear, and out of the other ear.’ These lessons go a long way in allowing children like Vicky, Ludovic or Zoheb to beat the odds, as they learn to be themselves without reservation, even if it means going against the grain. 

(Some names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of those concerned.)

The writer is a playwright who runs the theatre appreciation website, Stage Impressions (

Theatre for and by children
In the world of theatre, GRIPs occupies a special place. GRIPS Theater was originally set up in the wake of the student movement in the sixties in West Berlin, and gained a national and international reputation as an emancipatory children’s and youth theatre.

It was first introduced in Marathi in 1986, in collaboration with Maharashtra Cultural Centre, Theatre Academy and the Max Mueller Bhavan Pune. The Pune GRIPS movement was initiated by Dr. Mohan Agashe and the Max Mueller Bhavan Pune. Eight GRIPS plays for children and youth have been produced so far with over 1000 performances across India.

Notable plays produced by GRIPs include Chhaan Chhote Vaeet Mothe, and Nako Re Baba which features an authoritarian stepfather.

Theatre and film personality and psychiatrist Dr Mohan Agashe says, “When we introduced GRIPs theatre into India, it was a platform for children with children. Plays such as Nako Re Baba and Pan Amhala Khelaychay were realistically related to the experiences of children. There is a need of such exceptional plays today; plays that can become a mental diet for the children. There is too much of fantasy involved in children’s plays done today. Fantasy is necessary as well, but it should not deviate from realism.”
-- Vidya Heble

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