Her name is Katharina Minola, / Renown’d in Padua for her scolding tongue. This is how William Shakespeare introduces the heroine of The Taming of the Shrew, a play that has divided critics about his ideas on patriarchy and misogyny. When theatre director Sohaila Kapur adapted the play, titled Albeli Naari, for the Three Arts Club, a pre-Independence theatre group in Delhi, one of the first things she told the actor playing Katherine Minola was, “She is an independent-minded woman. Why is she so tantrumy? Why is she like a brat? Because, even now in India, when a woman doesn’t get her way, she is not allowed to express the rage and frustration she feels. Imagine, her bridegroom comes to the wedding dressed as a clown and her father says, ‘kam se kam, who aaya to hai’,” says Kapur. Anger mixes with passion when Kapur speaks about the play, and old memories come tumbling out.
Excerpts from an interview:
Why The Taming of the Shrew?
It is so politically incorrect that it challenged me. We decided to imagine what it means to have a man trying to subjugate his wife in today’s day and age of active feminism. What I found was that the play still resonates with current India. In the play, the father is in a hurry to get his overaged daughter married. In 17th-century Britain, when you cross 30, you cross the age of marriage. The biggest achievement of a woman was getting a good husband so families of girls were willing to offer a good dowry to get a good man — so much like today’s India. The laws have been made by the court but, unless there is societal change, people are not going to follow them and who is going to report them? What is honour killing about? It is all about the subjugation of women. I told my actors that don’t be taken aback if, after the patriarchal speech of Petruchio (the male protagonist of the play), you get a few claps in the hall.
Why have you placed the play in Delhi?
We placed it in Delhi and Haryana. Delhi is a city of immigrants and we get the colours and shades of people from different regions come to seek employment. The languages in the play are Hindi, Urdu, Haryanvi, Bundelkhandi, a mixture of Bhojpuri and Maithili and a smattering of Punjabi, exactly what you would hear in this region.
Have you ever faced patriarchy, given that your elite background provided some insulation?
I wanted to be an actor when I was young. I had the looks, talent and offers. I was told very firmly by my family that the boys could do it — my brother, Shekhar Kapur, went into it in a big way. The same family (brother included) put their collective foot down when I got an offer, although the film was big and starred Rajesh Khanna. Where was the fairness? Of course, I feel for my family because they feared the casting couch and were protecting me. Somebody would have attempted to bed me which was unthinkable for me, because those days ‘good girls’ were hard wired to keep their virginity for their husbands. It is an ogre, this casting couch.
Girls are told to uphold the honour of the family. Did that happen to you when you wanted to join Bollywood?
My father was doctor to the president of India and to almost all the embassy staff in Delhi. My uncle, MN Kapur, was one of the top educationists in the country. On my mother’s side, I am related to the Anands —Dev, Chetan and Vijay — who were ruling Bollywood. Imagine my oppression. I had to fight that in order to say yes. I didn’t have the courage. It is so typical of an Indian girl to be told, ‘Apni family ke izzat ka tumhe koi khayal nahi hai?’ And then, I found out that my mother wanted to be a journalist when she was young but she as stopped because ‘BA ke baad, shadi karni hai’.
So, you became a journalist.
My mother encouraged me. I wanted to do crime reporting but I was ultimately told to go to a lifestyle section. The argument given was we can’t take the responsibility for your security. That has shaped my thinking. A woman friend wanted to report on sports but was pushed into films. How many times I cried and gritted my teeth. The only thing that kept me going was theatre. I continued acting, though I did not direct. I joined IPTA Bombay and worked with stalwarts such as MS Sathyu and Shabana Azmi.
How have you packed all that in the play?
I feel that messages get through better with humour. I don’t want Katherine to be a figure of pity. I am going to have people laughing without releasing or maybe realising that these are their own follies. This is how they treat their daughters and sisters. At the end will be a small visual clue, through which I want the audience to think: ‘Has she really been tamed’?
The play will be staged today at Shri Ram Centre, Delhi, at 6.30 pm