Nirbhaya: A Play in Which
Actors Relive Their Abused Past



A scene from Nirbhaya, a play based on the brutal gang-rape and murder that took place in New Delhi, India, on December 16, 2012. The award-winning play is now being sown at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, New York. At the center of the picture is Japjit Kaur who plays the role of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the victim in the tragedy. (The picture is reproduced courtesy Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Nirbhaya in Sanskrit means the fearless one. A docudrama entitled Nirbhaya is currently on a five-week run, ending on May 17, at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, in New York City. It is based on the brutal gang-rape of the medical student Jyoti Singh Pandey, on a moving bus in New Delhi, on the night of December 16, 2012. The rapists had thrown Jyoti’s bleeding body onto the street and left for dead. She died two weeks later.

Nirbhaya, by the way, is the name the press chose for Jyoti, because of a prohibition under Indian law to identify the victim of a crime by his or her actual name, when the case is pending in court. One cannot think of a more appropriate name for Jyoti, who valiantly fought the rapists and, later, for her life.

The notorious incident shook the Indian authorities out of its indifference to the crime of rape. Even one rape is one too many, they realized, belatedly though. In New Delhi, it had become almost endemic.

Outraged by the brutality of the crime, and by the callousness with which the police responded to it, people all over India took to the streets, shouting “enough is enough.” One positive outcome of the Delhi tragedy is that the authorities are now swift to act when rape is reported and, more important, rape victims are emboldened to come forward and speak about it. The misplaced sense of shame that forces them to be silent about it is disappearing fast.

The play Nirbhaya is the outcome of the bold decision made by a bunch of artists to speak about and reenact the sexual and other violence they themselves have been victims of. Enough is enough, they said to themselves about their long silence over the matter. They were prodded to do so by the internationally renowned South African playwright Yael Farber and the Indian-American actress Poorna Jagannathan. Part of the Nirbhaya story is that of Ms. Jagannathan.

Written and directed by Ms. Farber, Nirbhaya was premiered at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in August 2013. It has won several coveted awards, including the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, and received rave reviews. The show currently going on at New York’s Lynn Redgrave Theater is its premiere in the U.S. An Assembly, Riverside Studios and Poorna Jagannathan Production, it is being presented by the Culture Project and ShivHans Pictures.

On my subway ride to the downtown Lynn Redgrave Theater, my mind was preoccupied with another documentary, this one a film, on the same Delhi rape, and its aftermath. The documentary film, India’s Daughter, produced for the BBC by Leslee Udwin and Dibang, is banned in India. The reason for the ban, given by an Indian court, is that the documentary’s airing would “encourage and incite violence against women.” All right-minded people find the reasoning laughable.

The Indian authorities should have known that in this age of ubiquitous social media, such banning is counterproductive. If anything, it has given the documentary the kind of publicity its producers had never anticipated. Thanks to the banning, even those who would have otherwise missed it made it a point to see it, and they did it with greater enthusiasm.

Those who have seen India’s Daughter are of the opinion that instead of banning, the authorities should have applauded it. Apart from other things, the documentary reaffirms the fact that there are many in India, even those in positions of power, who blame rapes on rape victims. Many a time, it is the fear, the fear of themselves being blamed for the sexual and other violations they have been subjected to, that prevents many victims from coming forward and speaking out.

We can be sure that India’s Daughter won’t be the last film on the despicable Delhi incident. We can also be sure that many books and many more articles are going to be written about it.

Nirbhaya is not just the speaking out, but the reliving on the stage, of the traumatic experiences five of the seven actors in the play – Poorna Jagannathan, Priyanka Bose, Pamela Sinha, Rukhsar Kabir and Sneha Jawale – had in their lives. They interweave their experiences with that of Jyoti Singh Pandey.

Poorna Jagannathan talks about being molested as a nine-year-old child by “a man we called uncle”; and being harassed as a teenage student in Delhi. On her way to and back from school, whether she was on a crowded public transportation bus or walking, there would be physical trespasses – hands going up her skirt or down her blouse – almost every day.

For Priyanka Bose, her childhood in Delhi was a dark road on which “the signage was clear: I could be beaten by those who loved me; touched by those who moved through our house.” She grew up as an angry child because she couldn’t talk about it. Now she talks to her daughter about sexuality, and about what is good touch and what is bad touch.

Pamela Sinha had her experience not in India, but in Canada. Her family had immigrated there when she was a child. As a young woman in Canada, she fell victim to the ultimate form of sexual violence. She was raped in her student apartment in Montreal. It left a permanent psychological scar on her. This is how she puts it in the play: “Nobody died that night. But where I was supposed to be, there is a hole in the world.”

Rukhsar Kabir, now an established Bollywood Film and TV actress, narrates an incident in her early days of acting. She was only 14, when her role in the film required her to kiss the male actor. As ill-luck would have it, as she was kissing the actor, for the first time on a film set, her father happened to come by. Infuriated, he tried to cut her lips with a broken bottle.

The crime committed against Sneha Jawale was not sexual, but dowry-related. She was doused with kerosene and set on fire by her husband. Indians can relate her story better than other nationals.

Burning newly-arrived wives when they fail to meet the dowry demands of in-laws in not an uncommon occurrence in India. In Sneha’s case, the husband did it in front of their baby son and fled the home with his family, taking the son with them. Now, years later, she goes around, carrying close to her breast a shirt her son wore as a baby, and quietly calls his name every time she passes by a crowd. She hopes that someone in the crowd would be her son, who would come to her when he hears his name being called by his own mother. It was painful to watch Sneha perform on the stage with her deformed face. She covered all the mirrors in her house, she says. That didn’t help. “I wept when I saw my reflection in a spoon,” she says in the play. “I could not find myself, could not see myself. But I am here.”

The other two actors, Ankur Vikal and Japjit Kaur, did not have any personal experiences to reveal, but the roles they played are indispensable in getting the message of Nirbhaya across. Ankur, the only male actor, plays the hero and the villain in the play. He is the hero when he plays the male companion with whom Jyoti Singh Pandey went to see a movie on that fateful night in Delhi. He is the villain in every crime scene in which one of the women in the play is sexually violated. He played both roles superbly.

Japjit Kaur, who plays Jyoti Singh Pandey, does not utter one word. She sings to herself all through the play, except in the rape scene. She sings beautifully. The songs and her serene demeanor make the audience feel as if the late Jyoti were present on the stage.

All the seven who participated in the play are seasoned actors, some well-known, not only in India, but in the U.S., too. Victims of sexual and other abuses will be indebted to them forever for the marvelous contribution they have made through Nirbhaya.

At the end of their performances at New York’s Lynn Redgrave Theater, I could see some in the audience wipe their tears.

(Published on May 4, 2015)

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