#GenderAnd Culture: Taking charge of mainstream theatre

How are women faring at taking more decision making roles in Indian theatre?

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi | Updated: July 4, 2017 5:50 pm
genderand, gender and culture, gender series, modern cinema, indian theatre Directing — historically a male bastion — still comes with a decent sprinkling of challenges for women.

Out of the thirty new Broadway productions announced last season in New York, only six were directed by women. In 2014, only 29 per cent of directors in Britain’s big theatres were women. Like its cinema counterpart, Indian theatre too has very few female directors and this gender imbalance continues. It gets inexplicably even more deplorable in case of playwrights, where the canon, over the centuries, has been overwhelmingly male. While there are many renowned women novelists and poets, but female dramatist equivalents to a Shakespeare and a Goethe are simply unavailable. In the modern world, and indeed modern India, these trends have been challenged consistently, especially since the seventies when many women directors took the reins.

To Direct like a Woman

Directing — historically a male bastion — still comes with a decent sprinkling of challenges for women. Brushes with patronising attitudes still happen every now and then in different forms and these experiences vary with the individual.

Historically, there has been a noticeable difference in the way in which many trailblazing Indian women directors have approached the form. It has been somewhat at odds with the ‘traditional’ idea of directing in which the director would be at the helm of the production and tell the actors exactly what he wanted them to do.

The concept of a ‘director’ as the final authority emerged in Europe, and it was developed and evolved by men”, says Kirti Jain, former faculty member and former Director at the National School of Drama (NSD) who observes that a more collaborative approach to direction, which involved experimentation and improvisation, was common to the work of many women directors since the eighties. This new participative approach, as opposed to the traditional top-down dictation by the director, frequently met with derision from the theatre’s male establishment.

Reasons were found to run them down. A lot of them would say ‘Oh! She gives so much space to actors because she doesn’t know how to direct’ or ‘she doesn’t have any clarity in her own production’ or another one like ‘It is a very diffused narrative. I don’t know what she’s trying to say.’

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Kirti says, “If a man is doing it then they will think that he is doing it for some reason and let’s look at it. But the same experimentation coming from a female director would be dismissed as lack of capability.” She says that these spaces are given very reluctantly. “It is very easy to marginalize women’s contributions from existence. In our own mindsets, when we read history and when we think of eminent people, we mostly think of men,” she adds.

What most male theatre persons don’t realise is that these women were creating a narrative that is diffuse because they look at life like that, that these directors wanted to bring in multiple perspectives instead of sticking to and dictating one interpretation. Many male directors would also have such collaborative approaches in their work but they would not be treated with the same infantilisation.

Delhi based actor-director Priyanka Sharma says, “Because we are living in a patriarchal society, people can feel hurt when a female director directs them. According to them, why should they listen to a young girl?” She recalls an experience with some senior male actors in a production she was directing just last year. “As a director I know what I am doing and I am very much sure about what I want to see on stage. I know how it can be done and what technique can be used. But they were not willing to listen because of my age and my gender,” she adds.

A certain kind of code in the director’s mode of communication is also normative among male-dominated theatre circles. “Men are generally very friendly with their crew and actors. They will be informal; they will comfortably curse too. The other person will refuse and they will be like ‘Abey chal (Just do it)’. And I will be like ‘Nahin aap try kijiye. Aapse ho jayega’ (Why don’t you try? I am sure you will be able to do it). So they may feel that I am too formal and that I should loosen up. But to me being informal and pally doesn’t mean to curse”, Priyanka explains.

Theatre professional Niranjani Iyer wonders if this has something to with authority. She draws on her own experience, “Women directors have to show themselves to be very strict and I can’t do that because I feel that we work together and I am not their mother. I remember one actor coming up to me and saying that ‘You should be more strict’. When they didn’t turn up for rehearsals but went for rehearsal with another woman director, I was like ‘what is this?’. They said ‘Wo bahut chillati hai’ (She shouts a lot). So I feel there is a pressure on women to present themselves to be as authoritative as men.” Niranjani is not sure though if male directors are similarly expected to be shouting creatures.

It would be a folly to also assume that gender becomes a limiting factor or an irritant in everybody’s experience in theatre. “For me, personally, I have never felt constricted. I never felt that I am being hemmed in or that I am not being allowed or that I am being put in my place for being a woman”, says Maya Krishna Rao, veteran creator and performing artist. Maya has created her own solos independently for nearly two decades now. “I have never felt that way — ever, ever, ever. I know it exists but personally I have not experienced it. I think only I have been my worst enemy — it was only me who was struggling with myself, not anybody else — neither my family nor anything beyond”, she adds.

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The Outside World: A Male Space

Barriers to greater involvement of women and girls in theater also originate from the environment. A crucial dimension of theatre-making is the backstage work and technical work that goes into staging a performance. “Often it becomes a very practical question”, says Aditee Biswas, a Delhi based designer and director. She adds, “A lot of young people who are interested in working with a director have to travel long distances. A lot of times I have had women working backstage but their families have created a lot of problems because of rehearsals timings and delays. Even though we finished at considerably decent hours — people still feel that girls out at night is very, very difficult. I have had a parent tell me things like: ‘I really don’t care what kind of a woman you are but my daughter cannot be out at that time.’” The insecurity coming from odd hours is also a reason why more men end up working backstage.

Technical work poses a different mix of attitudinal and environmental challenges. Sourcing set material and setting up the lights, sound and music are some areas that have long been ‘men’s work’. “When it comes to technical stuff, the general attitude — not just in theatre — is that women don’t really understand it much, that ‘you may be creative but leave the technical shit to me’. There is a certain offense that is taken when a girl or a woman takes a position of authority”, says Irawati Karnik, a Mumbai-based playwright and actor-director.

Lots of things have become part of the ritual of setting up and a lot of it happens late at night. “Tempos come from really far out places. There is a lot of this going into an unfamiliar, unsafe world that happens as part of the technical aspects. A lot of little codes are involved, such as giving the tempo driver a little extra money or in Bombay there are some places where you give the godown caretaker a quarter of rum,” Irawati explains.

I have been to furniture godowns in some godforsaken part of the city, where you are preconditioned to feel unsafe even though there isn’t any obvious threat in that moment. These are some things that you don’t imagine a woman herself being comfortable doing because of how we have been conditioned”, Irawati elaborates. At the same time, she clearly sees people in her generation and after, challenging these norms. “It’s there, but it’s going down. I know a lot more light designers now who are girls, a lot more women who are theatre managers. But you notice this in Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi”, she says.

Aditee, who is also a visiting professor at the NSD, concurs that as much as these trends do exist, there are also people who are constantly challenging them. She says, “I have many ex-students from the NSD who are women and they are designers who do lights. They are comfortable working during the nights and they make travel arrangements accordingly. I feel that it is also a question of how interested you are in challenging yourself and how many different roles do you want to take on.” Biswas indicates that the first antidote to overcoming gendered trends is to become capable in those jobs in spite of them.

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A Woman’s Part

Delhi based actor, Mallika Taneja says that men on stage can do anything. They can play any character and there is no limit to that imagination. She says, “You will always see that male characters are funnier than female characters. Why do we find quirkier men characters on stage? One would actually experience amazement watching them traverse all these great emotional depths. Why are there so few female counterparts of that? It’s because we have poor expectation from women”. When it comes to women characters and even actors, imaginations are still largely curtailed, Taneja feels. “Mother, sister, princess — that’s still the norm”, she says.

One of the key reasons behind this that there are not enough female writers in the industry. Priyanka, who operates in Delhi’s commercial theatre says, “So the story is not about you. It is about the man. Even the directions given to her are then very basic…’go like this’, ‘cry’, ‘smile’ and leave. And if there is a play about a woman… then she is victimized — she will wail, cry – or her body will be used to portray a bold character. And if you try and do something different, they will say ‘what kind of girl is this?’. These girls are not ‘real’ to them because for a girl to be appear real you have to cry, laugh or move around a man — because that is what they have always seen”. As economics is the pulse of commercial theatre, a lot of directors get away with stereotypical portrayal of women, on the pretext that the audience would not like it. So Priyanka feels that a lot of responsibility lies with the audience as well.

Irawati says that most of the writing gets done from a male point of view or a male dominated position, even when it may not be a specifically male work. “I don’t want to make a generalisation or blame anyone, but often for male writers, interesting, multi-faceted women characters are accommodated as an afterthought. It may be a serious afterthought — but that’s what it is. But this is also changing”, she explains. A historical reason for a dearth of full-fledged female characters is also that there used to be very few female actors, especially in small towns, which resulted in plays being written with lesser parts for women. That way, they could be staged more easily in different places. “Even as times have changed, those play texts and the vestiges of that mindset linger”, Kirti explains.

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Hashtag Gender, Hashtag Women

There is constantly going to be this thing of ‘women playwrights’ and ‘playwrights’, says Irawati, “I was asked once by someone who was interviewing me — why most of my protagonists are women? I answered that I wonder how many male playwrights get asked why most of their protagonists are men?” She says that men writing more male characters is just assumed, but women doing the same thing is considered an exception. She thinks that this is shifting now. “Especially in the cities, I know there are a lot of women playing substantial roles in making theatre,” she shares.

Mallika finds the trend of hashtagging any women’s work as a category apart from the ‘male’ mainstream. She asks,“How many women directors are there that are not stamped women directors? Like for men directors — ‘these are the budding stars’ — and then ‘these are the women!’ What do we do of that mindset?” According to her, it is not just the mindset of the perpetrator but also in women themselves. “All possibilities are open to men — not just on the stage — but also in life. As a woman, what all do I allow myself to do? That is something I have to think for myself and undo, unlearn the various ‘no’s that will stream my way at first”, she says.

It would be a mistake to oversimplify gender and its impact, as the gender factor gets redefined in tandem with other crucial factors such as age and privilege. Mallika observes, “There are a lot of more women in theatre today compared to the seventies. There is a lot more opportunity that women are claiming for themselves. Has sexism gone? No. But has sexism gone from the world? No.” But there is a slow chipping underway at the existing norms and thus there is hope for a level field on some far fetched day. It’s a work in progress.

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