Assembly, Riverside and Poorna Jagannathan Production have taken on the highly ambitious task of reproducing the horrendous gang-rape that shocked the world on December 16th 2012. In “Nirbhaya” the crime is an instrumental backdrop for the real life stories of sexual assaults on four Indian women. The result is a provocative play that evokes the tragedy that moved an all-knowing nation and a sleeping world, while examining why this incident, over others, was what forced the world to sit up and listen.
In almost another month it will be three whole years since the Delhi gang-rape. The crime has gone down in history for giving the dialogue on sexual assault a furious makeover. What has changed since then? A lot has been said. Appropriate words have been learned. The initial outrage has evaporated, leaving but a thin cloud of public awareness in the global atmosphere. Thought patterns have been altered but have legislations been sufficiently affected? It remains necessary still to remember the horrifying events in order to re-evaluate progress and to keep the momentum up in the fight against sexual assault.
Any retelling of the gang-rape would run the risk of trivialising the tragedy but this production does not fall into that beguiling trap. Though the subject matter is dark and heavy, the play manages to never feel depressing. The language is always hopeful. The words are full of outrage and embody forward-moving energy. No part of the play is about defeat and herein lies the success of the play. The writers have created a fine balance between terror and hope.
The set is simple, yet it helps the actors create a full-fledged image of the ruthless city that was home to the crime. The bus, where the crime was perpetrated, is created with six chairs and iron rods. Props are abound while the costumes are sombre and functional. The actors wear all black with patches of angry red, here and there. The music in the background is minimal. Japjit Kaur, the actress who plays Nirbhaya herself, provides most of the music with her piercingly soulful singing. Kaur has a magical voice that is as good as a full-blown soundtrack. She embodies the infamous icon of strength in a white salwar kameez and flowing dupatta. Her voice and her body provide the framework for “Nirbhaya”.
The play opens with the events that unfolded on that fateful night. Then come the stories of the four actresses in sequence. The actresses relate their experiences to Nirbhaya’s experience, and Nirbhaya becomes the catalyst in them breaking their own silences.
“Nirbhaya” has all the gravity one would expect from a play about an extremely delicate and sensitive subject. Almost all the credit for that gravity has to go to the heroic cast who have battled personal demons to share their stories of sexual assault in rooms full of strangers. You can feel their pain like it is your own. The lines written for them are short and impactful, which add further power to their delivery. The writing is economical yet poetic.
Even as I write this, I find myself needing moments to recollect myself, as I remember painful scenes from the play. “Nirbhaya” is hard to watch. There is no doubt about it. But what is watching compared to living it? Watching these scenes is essential for cultivating compassion for the issue and understanding in it. Had the makers of “Nirbhaya” gone for a tepid, dancing around the bush kind of palatable play, it would have been a disrespectful effort. It would have been a waste of opportunity and resources. “Nirbhaya” stays true by basically not giving a fuck and being painfully forthright.
I don’t want to give too much away about the stories of the play’s actresses because these are quite literally the actresses’ stories to tell. Priyanka Bose, Rukhsar Kabir, and Ankur Vikal are all accomplished actors with several plays and prominent Bollywood films to their name. Canadian actress, Pamela Mala Sinha’s story reminds us of the global nature of sexual assault, as she recounts a chilling story situated in Montreal. Activist Sneha Jawale’s story is the most heartbreaking as she wears the scars of her assault directly on her body for the world to see. Her tears were the most real thing I have ever seen on stage. The reality of all the stories really hits you at times like these and shakes you awake. The writers have given the actors powerful lines to best communicate their stories and to extensively convey the subtleties and layers of their trauma. Yael Farber has done a beautiful job of harnessing all these sensitive emotions and wielding them into a weapon of power, hope and education. The actors operate on a very high level of emotions. They convey sorrow and terror so convincingly. Nirbhaya’s rape scene is terrifying, which I feel is quite essential. I was in awe of how such terror was created on stage with screams, terse body language, shadows and stares.
“Nirbhaya” is thoughtful and respectful. It does not shy away from the difficult questions, which is exactly how it is able to do justice to Jyoti Singh Pandey’s story. The honesty and genuineness of the actors’ performances made the experience unforgettable for me. The authenticity of the play is sharp. Hindi dialogues are plentiful. They get translated when they carry pertinent information, otherwise they are left unexplained to create atmosphere. Non-Hindi speakers don’t miss anything.
Going to see “Nirbhaya” is important. The human brain has a short attention span. We will move on to the next cat video in mere hours, so taking the time to constantly regenerate momentum on serious women’s issues is necessary. Besides, the play is technically very good. Watching these highly qualified actors cast their spell on stage was an amazing opportunity. It was also very special to see a play that had an entirely Indian cast. Perhaps this will usher in more plays from around the world into Vancouver, in the future.
“Nirbhaya” is painful, yes, but it is also full of hope and energy. It is a respectful tribute to the courage of women who fight in the face of incredibly harsh realities. This is the most raw production you will see in the city this year. The creators have cut open an artery for “Nirbhaya”.
“Nirbhaya” plays at the Cultch until the 14th of November as part of the Diwali Fest. Please make sure you catch a show. Alternately, if you feel like further revelling in the crippling stupidity that is patriarchy, the story is covered in an in-depth documentary called “India’s Daughter”, which is currently streaming on Netflix.