THE play 7/7/07, directed by Faezeh Jalali, begins with the refrain of a haunting Persian song. “I will go to the mountains to hunt a deer/ Where is my gun?/ You’ve written a love letter/ With the blood of your lover”.
It is an apt opening for a play about life, death and betrayal; based on the story of a 19-year-old Iranian girl, Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was accused and later executed for murder in October 2014.
“The song is about the hunt for love. But it’s got violence written all over it. I chose the song because it contradicts itself, just like there are so many sides to this story,” explains Jalali. The Mumbai-based theatre actor and director, who comes from a Persian background, grew up listening to this folk song from the north of Iran. “This play was the first time I worked on something from the ‘other side’ of my culture,” she says about her latest production that premiered recently during the Center Stage festival at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA).
Jabbari, an aspiring interior designer, was lured to the home of a man who attempted to rape her. In self-defense, she stabbed him and fled. He later died, and she was put in jail for seven years. While imprisoned, she was initially denied a lawyer, tortured and thrown in solitary confinement. Human rights organisations world over campaigned long and hard for her release, to no avail. She was hung last October, and the lever was pulled by the son of the man she killed. During her trial, she was accused of being many things, including a spy, a seductress, and a “bad Muslim”— but till the end, Reyhaneh maintained that she wasn’t what they claimed.
Last year, Jalali, in her pidgin Persian, asked Jabbari’s mother for help in bringing Jabbari’s ordeal to life. Jabbari had written a set of 20 accounts before she was hung. While 10 parts are available to the public, the others are still with her mother, who plans to release them in the form of a book.
When Jalali read the accounts, she knew she had to do something. “They were so moving,” she says. “I wish I had known her. Her words were so touching — I didn’t know how we were going to match that,” adds Jalali.
Although a lot of what happens remains ambiguous and there are more grey areas than black and white, Jalali doesn’t think that matters. “We will never know the truth,” she says. “But this is her truth. We wanted to speak her words for her, now that she can’t, ” says Jalali, who has directed plays such as Jaal and acted in landmark productions, including Tim Supple’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Motley’s Arms and the Man. “Two things struck me the most about her story,” says Jalali. “The first is not knowing the difference between what is real and what is an illusion”. This was apparent in the scenes where Reyhaneh, in solitary confinement, slowly drowns in delusions, driven to madness by the loneliness and the solitary light bulb in her cell that was never turned off. “The second thing,” continues Jalali, “was the momentariness of life. For instance, if you disappeared right now that would be weird — but in prison that becomes normal. You could be playing a game today, and soon you realise that all the women who were playing with you have been executed. The person you were having tea with isn’t there anymore,” says Jalali.
Reyhaneh goes through a huge transformation from believing nothing can happen to her, to a girl sunk in depression and hopelessness, to a proud woman who is able to face death. “We usually spend our whole life learning to deal with death — meditating and ageing — but Reyhaneh did it all in just seven years (she was in prison from 2007 to 2014),” says Jalali.
Jalali’s next play will be very different. It is a satire about the life of Shikhandi from the Mahabharata. Shikhandi was raised as a man, whose wife discovers on her wedding night that he is a woman. Jalali is attracted to the story because it’s about being in between identities. Culturally, Mumbai-born Jalali has always felt in-between — not completely an Indian or Iranian.
Her experience in Iranian, American, Indian and German theatre allows her to play a variety of roles. Having completed her Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Tennessee, her skills as a trained acrobat made her perfect for the role of Peter Pan in the play of the same name. “To be honest, I would rather act than direct. I’m a trained actor. When you start directing, you get more projects to direct, but you want to act. But when you’re in your 30s, you flip from being the young actor to the old director.
I’m 36,” says Jalali. Seen in meaty roles in movies such as Qissa and Kurbaan, she adds, “Theatre is everything for me. There are films and advertisements, but they are not greater mediums for me. Doing films is not a step up.”