After the curtain fell to signal the end of Agnes of God, the play that had been caught up in a whirlwind of protests last week, its director Kaizaad Kotwal and the cast took the stage.
Emotional, and perhaps relieved that the premiere went off without any disruption, Kotwal admitted that the previous week was the “most surreal” one of his life.
“It’s as if I went to sleep on Sunday night and since Monday morning, I’ve been thrown into some sort of combination of a Kafka novel and Clockwork Orange…some bizarre world where a few fringe elements decided to use this play as their means to earn a few minutes of attention, and attempt some form of blackmail and extortion,” he said.
“But it’s still a democracy and we fight for a better India. Not for personal gain…but because this country deserves better.”
As soon as Kotwal uttered those words, he was choking with emotion and the audience responded with resounding applause.
Monday night’s premiere showing of Agnes of God, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai, was a small victory for Kotwal and his Poor-Box Productions in what may yet turn out to be a long battle with censorship. In the play, an adaptation of the original by Peilmeier, a psychiatrist investigates Sister Agnes’s claims of being a virgin after giving birth.
Since September 28, the Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) and Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) had been seeking to ban the production, saying it’s a “misrepresentation” of Christian beliefs. And it was only this morning that the theatre group got some respite, when Kotwal was allowed to go ahead with the show during a meeting with Maharashtra Minister of Minority Affairs Eknath Khadse and CSF’s Joseph Dias.
The director was, however, asked to hand over a recording of the play to the CSF for viewing to decide on whether it wished to pursue its complaint.
BJP leader Shaina NC, who convened the meeting with Khadse, told The Indian Express that they wanted to get both the parties to approach the matter objectively. “If they view the play and remain convinced of their claim, the CSF can take it up through the censors or legally. The state has no role to play in this,” she said.
Still, the premiere took place under tight security. Inside the venue, Tata Theatre, an audience of friends and supporters, including well-known theatre personalities such as Shabana Azmi, Quasar Padamsee, Dolly Thakore and Gerson da Cunha, cheered when Kotwal announced the start of the play.
The set was minimal, with a psychiatrist’s couch, a pew and backdrop screens showing stained glass panels depicting Infant Jesus with Mother Mary. Soon, Avanti Nagral as Sister Agnes, Anahita Uberoi as Dr Martha Livingston and Mahabanoo-Mody Kotwal as Mother Miriam — Agnes’s Mother Superior — had the audience enthralled.
While the interaction between Sister Agnes and Dr Livingston was sentimental, the banter between the psychiatrist and the Mother Superior was delightfully amusing. For instance, when Dr Livingston asks Mother Miriam to recount if there was any unusual activity on a particular night, the latter responded: “Like an earthquake?”
However, what truly made the evening special was the music: beautiful renditions of hymns, such as Hosanna, in Latin.
Essentially, Agnes of God attempts to provoke questions about existence of god by using as tools two characters that are closest to religion and one that has chosen to look away.
Whether or not the play will offend religious sentiments remains to be seen. But one line by the psychiatrist perhaps aptly described the situation that its director finds itself in. “There was a lynch mob that came before a judge who accused them of hanging a man without a fair and objective trial. Your honour, said the leader, we listened to him very fairly and very objectively, and then we hanged the son of the bitch,” says Dr Livingston.