As soon as the lights dim, a figure of a young girl clad in white walks on the stage, slowly making her way through the six rusty blue chairs arranged to make it look like an old bus. She is singing a song about a dark night, where she met a stranger and how since then her world has never been the same. As the song dies, five figures rise from the audience in black clothes, right hands raised with three fingers outstretched — a symbol of defiance made famous by one of the protesters on the streets of Delhi in December 2012 — and join her on stage.
Nirbhaya, the much-anticipated play opened in Mumbai on March 17 and was later staged in Delhi last week. It begins with the brutal gang rape of the 23-year-old paramedical student. The two-hour long play is about the outrage that followed the gang rape and is told through a powerful narrative.
The idea started with staging a play on the Delhi rape victim’s story alone, explains South African director Yael Farber, who is known for the critically acclaimed testimonial theatre piece Amajuba. She recalls waking up to her Facebook news feed flooded with updates about the gang rape the next morning. Among the various messages, one was from actor Poorna Jagannathan saying that she was a victim of sexual violence and by keeping silent, she felt responsible. She urged Farber to come to India and mobilise those like her to break their silence. Farber didn’t take more convincing.
In Mumbai, she and Jagannathan met many women who told them their stories of violence. The focus for the play was still on the story of the Delhi rape victim, but it was no longer just one case and one victim. “Yael left India clear about the direction she wanted the play to take — she wanted real survivors of sexual violence to perform,” Jagannathan says. “The result was a cast that not only had horrors to narrate, but the courage to tell them.”
The cast that delivers power-packed performances comprises actor-hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani, television actor Rukhsar Kabir, theatre artistes Jagannathan, Japjit Kaur, Ankur Vikal and Priyanka Bose, and Sneha Jawale. From being groped in crowded buses, raped by uncles at 12, hushed by their mothers, burned by their husbands, gang raped brutally, the protagonists weave in their own stories with Nirbhaya’s.
“We kept dream journals. We spoke during the day and Yael would write during the night, stringing words together and breathing poetry into our experiences. One night she said she had a vision. She saw six bus seats and the lone figure of Nirbhaya walking slowly through them. From that day on, the play came together,” says producer and actor Jagannathan.
Though engaging throughout, the play picks up a furious pace as the Delhi rape victim’s story comes back into light, with its merciless portrayal on stage. “It is time to call it what it is,” says one of the characters from the play.
Farber insists that the play is not targeting India alone. “The play in no way suggests Nirbhaya’s death will be the last. On the contrary — it shines a light on the nature of the problem and how our collective silence and shame in the face of sexual violence is what enables it to continue. Breaking that silence can affect change. The time has come,” she says.
The play had a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2013 and is in the country for the first time.