Nirbhaya: A play breaking silence about sexual violence is to be put on in India, at last

From all accounts, the performances in Scotland triggered an astonishing, empathetic response from audiences

Andrew Buncombe
Tuesday 04 March 2014 18:08
Poorna Jagannathan in Nirbhaya
Poorna Jagannathan in Nirbhaya

Nirbhaya is finally coming home. The team behind the disturbing, award-winning theatrical production that tells the story of the gang-rape and murder of a Delhi student are to perform for audiences in India for the first time later this month. They hope to encourage people to speak out about sexual violence committed by strangers and relatives, and the silence that allows it to persist.

“India is where the play comes from. The revolution on the streets [following the student’s death] is exactly the spirit that the play captures,” says actress and producer Poorna Jagannathan, speaking from London, where the cast is preparing for a short UK run that starts today at the Southbank Centre. “It is a protest against the conspiracy of silence.”

The play, which had its premiere last summer at the Edinburgh Festival, was scripted by the South African playwright Yael Farber after Jagannathan, a Bollywood and stage actress, contacted her in the aftermath of the December 2012 attack on a Delhi physiotherapy student. She invited her to come to India so they could put their heads together.

The attack on the student and her male friend after they boarded an off-duty bus triggered outrage around the world, and set in motion an unprecedented debate inside India about the position of women and the enduring menace of sexual violence.

The media was prevented by Indian law from naming the student who was attacked. Instead, it named her Nirbhaya, the Hindi word for fearless. She died two weeks after the attack, having been sent to a hospital in Singapore in a desperate attempt to save her life.

From all accounts, the performances of the play in Scotland triggered an astonishing, empathetic response from audiences. They also earned an Amnesty International award.

The team members are expecting something similar when they perform Nirbhaya in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, says Jagannathan.

“The response in Edinburgh was amazing– people chose to come forward and break their silence. The play’s goal is to encourage people to end their silence.”

Funds for the tour were raised by Kickstarter and supplemented by grants from the British Council and Oxfam. The team had originally planned to bring the play to India late last year and perform in Delhi on the anniversary of the assault, but was unable to give guarantees to venues.

Jagannathan says she had spoken to the family of the 23-year-old student. She says the woman’s father had been gracious but said the family did not wish to comment or be seen to be getting involved in any sort of project until the legal process of those charged over the attack was completed.

Four men convicted of the assault and sentenced to death are appealing against the case. A fifth male, who was 17 at the time and was treated as a juvenile, is serving three years in a young offenders’ institution. A sixth accused was found hanging in his cell.

In addition to the portrayal of the gang-rape, Farber’s script features five other storylines, all true-life experiences of members of the cast. The astrologer Sneha Jawale delivers a monologue recounting her marriage to a man who set fire to her in an attempt to secure a higher dowry price from her parents.

Jagannathan, who featured in the 2011 hit Delhi Belly with actor Aamir Khan, says that during the four years she lived in Delhi and travelled regularly on buses, she experienced first-hand the groping and affronts that are commonplace. Most women, she says, were taught to believe it was part of life, to keep quiet, not to shame the family. “But what if we are not all silent,” she told me when she visited Delhi last year.

Farber, who is based in Canada, says the team involved in the play had never suggested sexual violence was a problem unique to India.

“At the same time, the story did happen in India and the problem of sexual violence is deep-rooted there, in the same way that it is in my country – South Africa,” she says.

She adds: “It’s a piece about how sexual violence wrecks the lives of the individual. It’s a piece that asks us to be accountable.”

Attacks continue to take place every day in India’s cities and towns.

This week it was reported that a hotline set up in the aftermath of the Delhi attack to allow victims of sexual harassment and violence to come forward was close to being shut down.

The 24-hour helpline, which reportedly receives around 55,000 calls per month, is at risk because of a lack of funds and the political turmoil in the city. Members of staff have not been paid for several months and the recent resignation of the chief minister – the city is currently being ruled by the central government – has added to the confusion.

A looming election has not helped either. Perhaps the performances of Nirbhaya can act as a jolt.

“The play is meant for India,” says Jagannathan. “We are all delighted to be bringing it home.”

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