Faezeh Jalali is addressing a hall full of students at the National School of Drama in Delhi, and they are in splits. The Mumbai-based actor-director speaks with her entire body, mixing wisdom with street humour and has a wide smile. Hers was the first play to be staged at the eighth Theatre Olympics, being hosted by India. It is a play that’s quite like her — it speaks of serious things without speaking seriously. Shikhandi: The Story of The In-Betweens was first staged in March 2017 at NCPA, Mumbai. It has already been shortlisted for the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) 2018, to be held in Delhi in April.
Shikhandi takes up an episode of the Mahabharata in which princess Amba, determined to be the cause of Bhishma’s death, is reborn as a woman. But she’s raised as a man. Shikhandi’s journey from “Who am I?” to accepting his sexuality is, in Jalali’s retelling, a device to question patriarchy and the problems of gender identity in India. Unlike most theatre that deals with queer politics, though, Shikhandi is an irreverent romp through the favourite cliches of a heteronormative society.
In the play, teachers wonder if Shikhandi is goy or birl for the child is certainly not a boy or a girl. Shikhandi is a graceful dancer unlike the tomboy princess, who beats up the Pandavas and declares, “My name is Draupadi. I don’t obey nobody.” In the forests, there is also a strict rule called Yaksha Penalty 377, which punishes sex change with death and considers homosexuality anti-national. To complicate matters, women are hitting on Shikhandi but he is crushing on Arjun. How can one, he wonders, “be a man?”
“I am fluent in English but not so much in Hindi. I love traditional Indian forms but can’t speak the language. When I did Koodiyattam, I used to ask, ‘Why can’t the shlokas be in English’? The idea of Shikhandi was to marry tradition and modernity, because that is where I and a lot of urban Indians exist,” says Jalali. The play is in English, with the energetic movements drawn from Koodiyattam, Kalaripayattu and Yakshagana. Initially, the cast had found it difficult to pair English and mudras. Because Jalali wrote the text in 2014 in the UK, while nursing a heartbreak, the dialogues are poetic — “Even the gods were sinners / only the celibate were truly winners” — and delivered to live music.
“We are four sisters and a brother and my parents never distinguished between us. But we lived in a joint family and, as a little girl, when I wanted to play cricket with my boy cousins, they’d make me field far away so I’d hardly get a chance to do anything. A girl never gets to bat or bowl. Even when we are little, we are fighting patriarchy,” she says. Born and brought up in Bombay, Jalali went to JB Petit High School for Girls. She was the class clown, outdoorsy and sporty, who “did not give a sh*t”, but was a good in studies. The school has a rich tradition of theatre and Jalali was trained by stalwarts such as Pearl Padamsee. She followed up with a graduate degree in theatre from Beloit College, USA, and an MFA from University of Tennessee.
It was while she was travelling through Russia for a month as part of her post-graduation programme between 2001 and 2004, that a Russian director and teacher pointed out, “Faezeh, you come from two very rich cultures, Iran and India. Why haven’t you used any of it?” Jalali, a fourth-generation Iranian in India, realised, “I didn’t know much about Indian theatre forms, forget about Iranian theatre forms. I took up Bharatanatyam classes and was amazed by it.” She also began to read a lot more mythology and developed, among other things, a crush on Duryodhan. A few years ago, she went to Tehran for a cousin’s wedding and attended the Fadjr Theatre Festival. “All the plays were amazing. I thought, ‘They have so many restrictions in terms of what they can show, what they can see, what they can speak and they are doing beautiful work’. All their work is so political, every piece of it,” she says.
After returning in 2004, Jalali became a prominent name with Mumbai directors — among them was Rehaan Engineer. Jalali acted in Kasper, The Trestle and Pope Lick Creek, and Ursula and Norway Today with him. This was also the time Tim Supple was making A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Jalali emerged in the production as an aerial artist. She has acted in a wide range of plays including Naseeruddin Shah’s Arms and the Man, Rangbaaz Productions’ The Jungle Book, Rage Productions’ The Djinns of Eidgah and Akvarious Productions’ Peter Pan — playing roles ranging from a snake to a romantic heroine. Last year, essaying a clown, Jalali won a META for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Female) in Rajat Kapoor’s I Don’t Like It, As You Like It. Last year, she also acted in Jatinga, about girls from the red-light district of Kamathipura in Mumbai. It was directed by Suzanne Millar, artistic director of bAKEHOUSE in Sydney.
In 2016, too, Jalali won a META for Best Ensemble for directing 07/07/07, about Reyhaneh Jabbari — Jabbari was hanged to death in October 2014 in Iran for stabbing a man who had tried to rape her and the play uses her own words from letters to her mother. Sample this from the play: “I want you to know what happened to me at the age of 19. I want you to know that I am not a murderer.”
In 2010, Jalali co-founded FATS TheArts group to create theatre that educates and liberates. “As a director, I would like my work to have political and social relevance, whether done as a comedy or tragedy or drama,” she says. Is she afraid of being typecast as a gender rights activist? Jalali takes a sip from a bottle that has a picture of Rosie the Riveter, a World War II cultural icon of a woman in a headscarf flexing her muscle, and says, “A male director hardly gets questioned about his choices. I think it is important to understand that, man or woman, we are all creating work that we find exciting and relevant. If I have to wake up every morning and look forward to creating something, I want it to be something that the audience would want to watch because it is relevant and significant.”
At the Theatre Olympics, an entire auditorium laughed with Shikhandi for the whole duration of an hour-and-a-half. “When people laughed at it, it means they understood it. I hope, some in the audience will think about why they laughed. Maybe, one person will have a memory of a scene and say, ‘Oh my god, I am the person who calls my friend gay for not playing cricket, or uses chhakka as a slang’. If a play can do that — make a person conscious — it is enough,” says Jalali.