A major performance in Sydney, Australia, revolves around a pertinent malaise in India — sex trafficking — whose emblem is Kamathipura, Asia’s largest and oldest red-light area. Titled Jatinga, it has a cast of Indian and Australian artistes. Manda, a girl played by Mumbai-based actor Faezeh Jalali, indicates the socioeconomic pressures that lead women to Kamathipura. Manda is the eldest of three sisters whose father, a farmer, commits suicide and whose mother is then labelled a witch and killed by the villagers. “The girls are harassed by the mukhiya, who also takes over their land. Manda, being the eldest, straddles between playing parent and sister to her younger siblings,” says Jalali.
In an earlier interview, playwright Purva Naresh spoke about the parallel between Jatinga, a tourist destination in Assam where birds famously go to die and Kamathipura. Artistic director of bAKEHOUSE Suzanne Millar, who has directed Jatinga now speaks about turning a pressing concern into gripping theatre. The play will be performed in Mumbai later this year.
How does the place, Jatinga, where birds apparently go to commit suicide, become a metaphor for a story on the daughters of sex workers in Mumbai?
The birds are seemingly drawn to Jatinga against their will — instinctively they fly there, not knowing such a beautiful place will bring the end to their lives. The women in Kamathipura arrive in the area, mostly against their will, because they have no other option available to them. They or their families have been promised much — work, education, money — but none of this promise comes to pass. This beautiful place changes their life in an unimaginable way.
What is the narrative?
Five girls find themselves on a train bound for Jatinga, along with a journalist who learns the stories of the events that brought them there. As she learns of their lives, she is compelled to tell the world of their experiences.
What was the process of this Indo-Australian collaboration?
I worked with a cast of Indian actors in Mumbai through 2015 and 2016, developing and workshopping the script in Hindi. In late 2016, Purva Naresh translated the script to English, and we spent time working on it in Sydney, with Purva joining us from Mumbai. The narrative and context of the play is something that has not been seen in Sydney. We were challenged to see how much of India we should put on stage for our Australian audience. Through development in November 2016, we realised that the audiences were relishing the unique piece of India, so we committed to working to ensure the set and staging of the play brought the world of the slums, the village and the hills of Jatinga to Sydney.
Tell us about the performance style to fit the content.
A key to the building of the world on stage was the sound design. Nate Edmondson’s sound composition fills our theatre with the noise of the traffic and lane ways of Mumbai, the tranquil sounds of the village, and the building sound of the thousands of birds flying towards Jatinga. We move a large cast around a small stage, from a train to a hockey field, to an office in the city, using the actors to create the sense of the vast numbers of India. There’s a style of movement that our audiences responded warmly to — it has not been seen often in Sydney, where the focus is on realistic and naturalistic theatre. And of course, we have cast members who speak Hindi, so it has been exciting to see how much the audiences are enjoying hearing such different language and accent on stage.
The problem of the flesh trade and trafficking is spread across the globe. What is your perspective from Australia?
Human trafficking is a global issue. Here, in Sydney, we have recently read of a young woman who has been held against her will. There are workers here that are being taken advantage of; there are expats in the Middle East who are told they must surrender their passports so they can work. In Mumbai, I have been working with a wonderful NGO called Apne Aap Women’s Collecive (AAWC), committed to working with the daughters of the victims of sex trafficking in Kamathipura to prevent second generational cycle of prostitution. They have a 100 per cent success rate and have been integral in providing pathways out of the area to many, many young women. In 2014, I got to know the girls there very well, and I regularly return to check in on them. Jatinga is inspired by the lives of some of these girls.
What is the larger social initiative of Jatinga?
Jatinga is a woman-led project — woman writer, woman director, woman producers, a largely women’s cast — that tells the often unheard stories of five young women. In addition to this, the play is a part of a larger initiative to provoke social change, with multiple funding and philanthropic outcomes for the centre, including the establishment of a second night shelter for the mos vulnerable of girls. Finally, bAKEHOUSE has created an international cultural and artistic exchange, with the hope that artists from Mumbai and Sydney will build their own relationships and create their own work. To date, we have been able to fund and facilitate the visits of a writer, filmmaker, actor and producer from Sydney in Mumbai, and a writer, actor, tech operator from Mumbai in Sydney. We aim to build strong ties between our two cities through the arts.