Of the 10 plays nominated for this year’s Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META)—winners will be announced during the forthcoming META festival in New Delhi (April 13-18)—half focus on how women are treated in society.
Last year, Chandra Keerthi B was shocked to hear on television the news of a mother throwing her seven-year-old daughter to death from her second-floor apartment. It had happened two streets away from his home in Bengaluru. Far away in Pune, Kshitish Date took a train to Mumbai to watch the making of a B-grade movie. He saw light boys and the entire crew standing around, laughing and passing comments on a woman in the bed. In Mumbai, Faezeh Jalali wondered why the transgender community today remains on the fringes of society. Further away in Guwahati, Ranhang Choudhury couldn’t believe that his country couldn’t remember the Indian women enslaved by the Japanese army during World War II. From ‘comfort women’ to the commodification of women, there’s a common thread running through some current productions in Indian theatre. Of the 10 plays nominated for this year’s Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META)—winners will be announced during the forthcoming META festival in New Delhi (April 13-18)—half focus on how women are treated in society. At the time of movements such as ‘Me Too’ and ‘Time’s up’, Indian theatre is looking hard at contemporary society to understand such prejudices. The tragic death of a young girl near his home became the subject for his first play as director for Chandra Keerthi B, a Bengaluru-based former child artiste. “The death of the child had happened near my home, but I got to know about it only through TV,” recalls Keerthi, director of Caucasian Chalk Circle, the first production of his group Theatre Artistree, which was launched on World Theatre Day (March 27) last year.
“The incident left me wondering… how can a mother do that to her own child?” says Keerthi, who explores motherhood and love in the Kannada play through a retelling of the famous Bertolt Brecht play. In the Hindi play Item, by Pune’s Natak Company, Marathi actor-director Kshitish Date sets up a B-grade movie studio floor, used for shooting soft porn, to discuss the commodification of women in the media. “In our country, women are used as ‘items’ in every medium,” says Date, who has turned Marathi playwright and director Siddhesh Purkar’s drama into an inquisition of contemporary society. “In the video parlours of Mumbai, I saw the city’s poor and rich sitting together and enjoying B-grade films,” he says, adding, “The set of a B-grade movie is a male-dominated space. Women don’t have the right to have an opinion.” Then there is Shikhandi: The Story of the In-Betweens by Faezeh Jalali, founder of Mumbai-based theatre collaborative FATS TheArts. The play uses contemporary text to tell the story of Shikhandi, the transgender fighter, who defeats the mighty Bhishma in the Mahabharata. “The story of Shikhandi is one that’s important to tell in this day and age,” says Jalali, whose play 07/07/07 won the Best Ensemble Cast at META two years ago. “It reminds us that transgenders have always been part of our society, history and mythology.
Yet today, transgender people struggle to be accepted for who they are,” says Jalali, adding that her play, which is in English, questions “our current stereotypes around gender and sexuality”. Assamese playwright and director Rahang Choudhury’s Comfort Women: An Untold History talks about society’s silence around Indian women taken as slaves by the Japanese army during World War II in Manipur and Nagaland. “The fact that the Japanese army abducted women from India during their invasion in 1944 is not discussed by our society,” explains Choudhury, who has chosen Sarengla, a character from the novel Yaruingam by Jnanpith-winning Assamese writer Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya, to explore the story of ‘comfort women’ in the play by Abhigyanm theatre group in Guwahati. Another play called Karuppu uses the traditional kala teeka (black spot) to explore the man-woman relationship. The non-verbal play, by Indianostrum Theatre in Puducherry, is directed by Koumarane Valavane, a theoretical physicist who moved to theatre while studying in Marseille, France. Five strong women characters from mythology—Iphigenie, Ophelia, Clytemnestre, Medee and Kali—play a central role in the dance-drama, which deals with imbalances in the universe. Actor Kalieaswari Srinivasan, who played a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee in the Cannes 2015 Palme d’Or-winner Dheepan, is part of the cast. “Karuppu is the vision of a world born simply from the union between pakriti (the feminine) and purusha (the masculine). This union between energy and consciousness, dynamic of a whole universe, is as fragile as the relationship between man and woman,” says Valavane.