Rampantly Regressive Rangmanch
In the June of 2016, a calamity befell all of us at the Mithibai Drama Team – the official team representing our college at the Mumbai University. The adversary was a yearly occurrence; the university youth festival hosts an array of performance and literary events, awards the winning colleges with medal and points and eventually goes on to take the best performers to a national inter-university battle. Except it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. The competitions are riddled with badly lit dressing rooms, results that are even shadier, stinky kitchens and bathrooms in the week of the the shows. Even worse, ‘professional directors’ that direct multiple competing colleges are hired to direct the ‘youth plays’.
I was quite excited to perform at the Mumbai University Youth festival that year because the process from the previous year had had been great for the team. So as routine, an acclaimed director from the usual brood was hired by our college to ‘direct’ 4 drama events.
When the news made rounds that one of the plays has a feminist approach, I was quite excited. But the joy was short-lasting and major loopholes in the script started to surface.
The play is called ‘Chauthara’ and is based outside the infamous Shani temple in Maharashtra. The temple has been in news for its rigid ban on women in the premises and the subsequent revolt against it. The play is a dialogue between a chaiwaala-slash-caste-cobbler and a social activist who leads the revolt. I was to play the social activist and character sketch described a ‘modern’ ‘conventional’ girl – short skirt, slightly body fitting top, a purse and a very ‘girlish’ stance (a description that doesn’t really reckon with me but the thin marathi girl had walked out and they had no choice).
The play begins with the chaiwala literally leering at the social activist while she keeps mum (coz that’s how women’s right activists function lol). Instead, she indulges in a conversation with him further ladden with snide comments on her clothes and mannerisms. He ridicules her for her elitism (OF COURSE) and her education (OF COURSE). The writer of this play happily turns the girl’s opinions into ‘feminist cliches’ and brings them down with pride.
The point of the play is that these kind of rebellions are a nuisance for people like the chaiwala and other stall owners in the surrounding. Arre madam, you should go teach in schools no? Education is everything! In the first 15 minutes of the play, he’s already assumed her work and background and let the audience take this as fact. How many successful women do you know? Our feminst leader only knows the three names our writer knows – Kalpana Chawla, Savitribai Phule and Pratibha Patil. So he (the chaiwaala) gets further preachy and without giving her a chance to speak he advises her to go back to her roots.
It isn’t all that bad. There are times when my character launces into noteworthy monologues only to be torn apart by the sky-high wit of the chaiwaala. *Cue a lot of punchlines carved out for a misogynistic audience*.
The feminist play, the writer, the audience and the chaiwaala now all come together to declare the woman a rebel without cause. By the end of the tiresome rigmarole, the woman complies with the chaiwala (surprise surprise!), abandons the revolt and asks all the other supporters to go back home! Also, twist in the tale – chaiwaala has a wife and he ‘lets’ her work, ans also a one -year old baby that he benevolently looks after. The baby is called Savitri (like Savitri Phule, geddit?)
At one point, the script also tries to justify why women should not be allowed in the temple by comparing it to separate public toilets for Men and Women (The second year degree college student I was could see spot so many fallacies in this argument, but not our young woman).
So there it was. Just another patriarchal statement disguised as a play supporting up-liftment of women. A few friends and I tried to confront the college and the director about this issue that should not go unseen. Instead we received some condescending ‘kids think a lot these days’ and ‘don’t stress yourselves over the loopholes’.
The director’s assistants performed every bit of the play for us to mimic them. But that was nothing. Every break when I would lie on the floor on my tummy, they would point it out and ask me to straighten up. If i protested, I was a boy. The process got so mentally taxing for me. Now here’s what:
- As a young theatre enthusiast, I know of so many plays successfully changing the way society thinks. But here I was stuck with a play with such a strong stench of mysogyny.
2. The character had no justification. I could come up with more than one counterpoint to the chaiwaala’s points, but only to be constantly shut down.
3. The actual calamity? I was asked to wear a tummy tucker for this performance to fit their idea of a social activist. I raised my voice against this but to no avail. It led to me constantly questioning myself and my body type. Ek toh, I’ve never been uncomfortable with my tummy. But the directorial team obviously was. So I told them it made me uncomfortable and hampered my performance. I was last year’s best actress and awards mean points and more projects. So that was the end of the tummy tucker incident.
Cherry on the cake?
The play stood second at the Mumbai University zonal round. The audience loved the poorly researched play and an ancient ideology received terrific response at the Youth festival. The zonal round judges were literally nodding in approval throughout the show.
Did I stop?
No. I decided to fuel my fire for rebellion and went on to perform a mono-act on fat shaming at the same festival. My fellow rebel did one on marital rape. Would it really surprise you that both didn’t make it to the finals?
– Manavi Keer
Am I too woke for this?
Urban Dictionary user 1: A state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post.
Urban Dictionary user 2: Getting woke is like being in the Matrix and taking the red pill. You get a sudden understanding of what’s really going on and find out you were wrong about much of what you understood to be truth.
It’s an exciting time to be a theatre-goer in Bombay (said several people at different times, each convinced they were right). Especially as a person who sees politics in everything, watching a socially relevant play is not only common, but almost inevitable. “Moral of the story” theatre, or utterly allegorical theatre is how theatre was re-introduced to Mumbaikars, way back when theatre became an activity for upper-class Indians Without drowning in goody-goody attempts to reform the world, almost every play I’ve watched in the recent past has addressed a social issue, and attempted challenge prejudice.
In the past year alone, plays I’ve seen have tackled mental health (psychosis and degeneration), casteism, sexism, communalism, state repression, fascism, alternate ,gender identities, racism, ageism, homophobia – phew!
Only a handful of these plays actually named the practise they were addressing; discussing it openly seemed to make it a “social-issue play”, an adjective no one wants attached to their work. And yet, without a doubt, these plays took a stand, clearly making a statement, one way or another, ensuring the audience would agree with them by the end of the show. One would imagine that my political heart would skip and jump out of the theatre. Not quite.
Instead, my obsessively sociological brain and heart squirmed as a Brahmin man defines casteism while the Dalit man remains mute as ever. My eyes widened as homosexuality and a trans-gendered identity seemed interchangeable. Rape phobia quickly turned into the “manipulative woman” trope, psychosis was revealed to be the punchline, cross-dressing became the “comic relief”, and my heart dissolved into an acidic mess in my stomach.
Each attempt at social change, come with two servings of self-importance, and half a serving of research. Half-baked truths, innately regressive mind-sets had seeped through so many of the plays I watched, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t find it in me to rise with my co-audience for a standing ovation.
I wondered whether it was just me; was I the only one uncomfortable with the fact that an office drama had one woman on stage, that too for 2-3 minutes, and she turned out to be a Vishakha-guidelines-abuser? Was I over-sensitive in seeing an overtly Brahmin narrative describe the breaking-of-shackles by a Brahmin man of a Dalit farm labourer? Could it be that I was being “too Sociology types”, when a wedding-play decided to walk a path where neither the audience, nor the character is clear about the difference between a trans-woman, a cross-dressing man, and a homosexual cis- man? Quite likely…
It’s more than a little believable to me, that I am more sensitive to these issues than most people; that I demand too much correctness, one that is not necessarily the path that is seen as correct by the theatre-makers themselves. However, what perhaps left behind the worst taste of all, was the utter belief that each show was a pathbreaker, one that is changing the world, and the Mumbai theatre scene.
Certainly, they are bringing some change – to have plays that discuss these topics is a huge step, and I suppose my ultra-woke self will just have to argue away, until we reach the next level of political correctness (by which point, some snide little snot will insult me and my old-school ways). Until them, I am resigned to the fact that I might just be too woke for this.