Imagine a cast of women standing up onstage and delivering powerful speeches and monologues on the vagina. With lines like “Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas. They get very excited, mainly because no one’s ever asked them before,” being spoken right in the introduction, Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was considered quite revolutionary when it was first performed in the US in 1996. However, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal and her son Kaizaad Kotwal, who adapted the play for Indian productions 15 years ago, maintain that it is not a bold production but a necessary one about sexual abuse and liberation.
From being denied permission to play in Chennai for its bold content 15 years ago to playing to packed galleries today, the iconic play has come a long way. Since its conception, the play has travelled the world and received massive critical acclaim. To celebrate its milestone of completing 15 years, the play will have special appearances from names such as Naseeruddin Shah, Malishka Mendonsa and other celebrities.
“I like to jump in where angels fear to tread. So, when I first saw the play performed in Atlanta, Georgia, I knew that I wanted to perform it in India,” says Mahabanoo, adding that she has been a bit apprehensive about the play’s reception in India. “I should not have underestimated the audience. We have even performed for the 1,200 policewomen, and women in the basti once we had come up with the Hindi version,” she recalls.
“No one — man or woman — will be the same after watching this play!” proclaims the play’s poster, and Mahabanoo recounts a few such instances. “Once, during the scene which deals with rape, we had a girl crying uncontrollably. We had to halt the play and take her to the green room. She told us that she had walked in on her uncle raping her sister and that the play felt like closure of sorts to her. A few years later, her little sister also came to watch the play. Once a girl on a flight with me told me that the play had given her the courage to walk away from an abusive marriage,” she reminisces.
Varsha Agnihotri, who has been a part of the production since the first Hindi production, and now acts in both Hindi and English versions, also remembers instances where the audience went back with more open mindsets. “Once, I was in the audience and saw a group of young men, who were talking about how it was going to be the perfect guy’s night — watching women talking about vaginas and then going out drinking. During the course of the play, they grew more and more subdued. When they left, I saw them getting tickets for their wives for the next day’s show,” she recalls.
However, like most other feminist movements of the time, the actor says that they have had to face their own set of trials. “At a certain point, we were not allowed to play in Chennai, Lucknow and Ahmedabad. We have, since then, gone to all these cities. The Chennai incident stands out, because we were going there with Oscar winning actors, and we were not allowed to board the flight because the Chennai police commissioner though we would disrupt the peace. I’m not sure how, though,” says an incredulous Varsha.
Opposition has also come from more personal quarters, Varsha recounts, “Once, I had gone to a party and a couple asked me what I was doing and I told them that I was currently doing a play. They seemed very interested and asked which play. When I told them, The Vagina Monologues, the guy couldn’t look me in the eye, and the woman looked disgusted and said, ‘what’s that?’ I am not sure what it is about feminism that raises eyebrows. It should be part of life, something taken for granted, like breathing.”
The Vagina Monologues has been very closely associated with movements like V-Day and One Billion Rising, both started by Ensler, and Mahabanoo and Kaizaad have brought both movements to India along with the play. Speaking about the relevance of the movements and the play, Kaizaad says, “People who oppose feminism, are in essence, opposing humanity. But, any time a movement starts to gain momentum, others feel threatened by it. The recent backlash against feminism in the form of meninists and online trolls only goes to prove the relevance of feminism and a play like The Vagina Monologues. The work is far from done.”
On April 1 and 2, at 5 pm, 7 pm and 9 pm At Prithvi Theatre, 20 Janki Kutir, Juhu Church Road