Empower and empathise
Adapted to the Indian context, the Vagina Monologues continue to be an iconic experience, says Mallika Sarna
Twenty years after the episodic play, Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler was staged for the first time at Off-Broadway Westside Theatre, New York, it has travelled over the world and taken a life of its own.
The play, since it delves into consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, body image, genital mutilation, direct and indirect encounters with reproduction, sex work, and several other topics through the eyes of women with various ages, races, sexualities, and other differences, is radical at times, empathetic and enlightening at others. Not surprisingly, it has been called “probably the most important piece of political theater of the last decade.”
And the tone is set right from the beginning when Mona Ambegaonkar, Indian film and television actress states, “If your vagina could talk, what would it say in a few words? Slow down! That is the international vagina anthem.”
The play, is helmed by mother-son duo, Kaizaad Kotwal and Mahabanoo Mody- Kotwal, who are back as co-directors and co-producers with the play in collaboration with Canvas Laugh Club at DLF Mall of India, Noida this month. Eve Ensler’s famous adaptation has made rounds in many cities including Noida this month with actors Ambegaonkar and Swati Das setting the stage on fire.
The celebrated adaptation has inspired many, including Kaizaad, who says, “I saw the play in 1997 in America as a young man. Frankly speaking, I did not get the impact of what a woman would have experienced while watching the play. I was unable to comprehend the play completely like I do today. The only thing that was understood by my brain was the audience response. People shouted, laughed and also clapped in between of things. I was curious to know why that happened so I passed on the play to my mother who agreed to stage it after substantial observations. Both of us have been working on the voices of women since the inception of our theatre, so it felt like a natural hit.”
Despite nearly two decades, the play continues to be relevant today. Kotwal adds, “It is more relevant today than it was 20 years ago. The fundamental issues the play addresses is violence against women which has not lowered but rather increased in present times. Therefore, till we don’t solve the issue of violence together, this play or any other work that talks about it will have relevance. When we started doing the play in 2003, we thought may be the play would help in creating a difference in individual lives. But as a social problem, it is getting worse. Today, you just open the newspaper and all you get to read is about rapes in Delhi or Mumbai but never about Dalit or poor women being raped. They don’t talk about other pivotal forms of violence such as whitening creams which the consumer market depends on and much more. So, basically we are not able to deal with issues the way they should be dealt.”
The play has been adapted, according to Indian cultural refrences and audience. He elaborates, “We couldn’t change the text but we changed the names and references. So, for instance, the woman in the original script is a Jewish woman but there is a Parsi or a Gujarati woman in our script. Also, if the Americans talk about hamburgers, then we talk about Vada pavs. Therefore, it is about giving our audience material with which they can connect better so that the impact of the play remains the same.”
Since India is such a diverse country, where attitudes to women are poles apart in different cities, does the play evoke different reactions at different place? Ambegaonkar disagrees. The Dhadkan actress, says, “It is not the city that makes the difference, rather it depends from audience to audience. Silence does not mean rejection nor does laughter mean that they don’t understand.” And with the number of atrocities inflicted upon women by the society, this play tries to soften the blow.
Ambegaonkar adds with a smile, “This play should affect the policy decisions made by the government to safeguard the safety of women in health and physical realm. Twenty years ago, women were not educated and were not allowed to go on stage but the scenario has changed today. In today’s times, television and cinema have broken barriers to convey significant messages to the audience and there is gender appreciation as well.”
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