A nun gives birth to a child and claims she is a virgin, leading to a series of investigations by a psychiatrist.
Can this one-line thread force a play to be cancelled, prompt the church to reach the Union Home Minister and force its director to seek police protection? Yes, it appears. Especially if the main leads “are not Christians” and one of the roles is to be played by thespian actor Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, also famous for her other production Vagina Monologues.
Three days after the Mumbai-based Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) launched a protest against Agnes of God, an adaptation by Poor-Box Productions of John Pielmeier’s controversial original, the play continues to make news for all the wrong reasons.
On Friday, its director Kaizaad Kotwal, the 46-year-old son of Mahabanoo, visited the Marine Drive police station to pursue his plea seeking protection for himself and the lead cast, including his mother.
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In Kotwal’s production, Avanti Nagral is to play Sister Agnes, Anahita Uberoi the psychiatrist Martha Livingston, and Mahabanoo the Mother Superior. Mother Superior Miriam knows of Agnes’s pregnancy but attempts to hide the facts. “It’s a play with very powerful roles for two women characters and in keeping with the group’s penchant for women-centric work,” Mahabanoo told The Indian Express.
But CSF general-secretary Joseph Dias is not impressed. “The play has been made by a group whose earlier work is Vagina Monologues. They are not Christians and they didn’t involve or consult the Church. The play questions the sacrifice of nuns. Now, they will sell the tickets for hundreds of rupees,” Dias told The Indian Express.
The church has not used the language of Dias but has still strongly sought a ban on the play, which it described as a “misrepresentation of the religious belief of the Christian community”, in a letter sent to Rajnath Singh on September 30.
“The reason why the Catholic Church is against such a play is that it is the wrongful portrayal of the character of lakhs of our clergy, who are committed to a life of celibacy,” stated the letter sent by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), an apex body.
Archbishop Oswald Cardinal Gracias, meanwhile, issued a statement expressing “serious reservations” about the advertisements for the play. “They distort Catholic religious concepts such as the Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth and hence tend to ridicule tenets of our faith — without understanding their meaning. The screaming headlines and life-size cut outs of religious sisters seem to portray them as characters lacking in integrity and guilty of cover-up of infanticide. Such a depiction will lower the esteem for nuns in the eyes of children to whom nuns impart knowledge and human values,” he stated.
Caught in the middle is Kotwal. “I want to ensure the safety of the cast and crew and also protect them against any impending arrest, which Dias has threatened us against several times since Monday. He has a history of igniting passions over religion, he did the same when the Hollywood film Da Vinci Code was released,” Kotwal told The Indian Express.
After CSF raised objections, Sophia Bhabha Hall in Breach Candy, where Agnes of God was to be staged on October 4, cancelled the premiere as well as all other shows.
Kotwal has rescheduled the premiere on October 5 for invitees at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) on Nariman Point, but has not planned any ticketed shows yet.
Incidentally, there are two other productions of the same play underway in Kerala and Hyderabad. The Hyderabad-based production is being directed by Vinay Varma and is to premiere on October 9 at the B M Birla Science Centre.
“We don’t know the groups behind these productions but Dias presumes they are affiliated to us… The play has been staged in Mumbai and other parts of the country before. I remember watching it as a child,” Kotwal said.
The original play, the title of which is a take on Agnus dei (Latin for Lamb of God), was also adapted into a movie in 1985 with Jane Fonda as Livingston. The film opened to mixed reviews but won several Academy Award nominations.