She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes,” croons Billy Joel in the ringtone of Mumbai-based theatre actor Divya Arora. “I have always liked this song because it helped me become the woman I am. On stage or in life, I always do the main role. I don’t like to accept the second place,” she says.
For more than 25 years, Arora has played strong-willed women from the wheelchair to which she has been confined since childhood. “No art form should discriminate on the basis of physical ability,” she says. This weekend, she takes up one of the iconic protagonists of the stage, Mahesh Dattani’s Tara, who is also battling physical challenges. Titled, Tara, the play has been directed by Sohaila Kapur and will run at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi on September 7 and 8 before travelling to the Royal Opera House in Mumbai in December.
“I feel I have been preparing for Tara all my life,” says Arora. The story revolves around conjoined twins, Tara and Chandan, who are separated by surgery as well as by patriarchal norms in their family. “Tara is the one who bears the brunt of gender discrimination. We have a number of funny moments on stage but the play is a deep and disturbing representation of society,” says Arora. Dattani, who wrote the story in 1990, says that seeing Arora “was like meeting my creation”. “She has the same indomitable spirit, pride and absence of self-pity as Tara,” he says.
Arora was two-and-a-half-years-old when she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy but she was a “very, very stubborn girl”. “I have a very supportive family and there were no biases,” she says. Nobody in her family was in the arts but her father’s work ensured that Arora grew up in various countries and was exposed to world culture. In school, Spastic Society of India, she was shy and suffered from microphone phobia. When Arora was first cast in a play, Helen of Troy, she developed high fever out of nervousness. At Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi, where Arora studied sociology, eminent theatre director Anamika Haksar cast her as Maurya, the matriarch of JM Synge’s stark play, Riders to the Sea. Arora has worked in a number of street and proscenium plays before finding her niche in English-language drama.
“For me, everything is purposeful and so is theatre. Theatre is a resonance of real life. What we see on stage mirrors the world beyond it,” she says. She has played diehard romantics in two of her most important productions — Barefoot in the Park (2005) and The Melody of Love (2010). In Dr Khanna (2014), Arora starred opposite Tom Alter as a cheerful psychiatrist who talks of happiness with his rich-and-miserable character. “It does not matter that I am not fully mobile. I make my mind jump around. Everything is about the mind,” she says.
Working with Arora challenges directors and co-stars to reimagine the craft of theatre. Kapur mainly worked with Arora’s extreme enthusiasm on stage and the fact that she is living for theatre. “This is her biggest passion. She has defied many critical moments in her life. When people thought she was going to slip away, she came through only because of her love for life and theatre. Hats off to her. It is a psychology of someone who has suffered from birth but has great enthusiasm and talent,” says the director. This made up for the fact that Arora lacks the energy required of an actor to add volume to their voice. Or that Tara has a Jaipur foot but can move around unlike Arora.
Kapur, who has known Arora for 13 years, began the play by having long, heart-to-heart conversations about Arora’s experiences and emotions. “I explained to her, ‘Tara is you, the only difference is that you are a mature woman and Tara is only 16. You have to transpose all that into this young girl’s body’. It has to be Divya in Tara. What you see on stage is a mixture of two, the youth is Tara but the character is actually Divya. The resemblance between the two is uncanny, such as both are suffering from kidney problems and have to undergo repeated surgeries,” she says. In the play, the wheelchair becomes an actor. Arora uses it like a body — twists and turns it around at ease and, when angry, moves it away.
Arora’s high spirits run through the play as Tara faces lack of awareness in society about specially-abled individuals. “Society can change a name, from viklang to divyang, but ground realities remain the same. I want to travel with Tara because we want a change in how society views us. I wish there were more Taras in the world,” she says.
Tara will be staged at Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, on September 7 and 8, 7.30 pm. Tickets on Bookmyshow