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Women, uninterrupted

Mohini Chaudhuri | Updated on January 19, 2018 Published on February 05, 2016

United we rule Dolly Thakore (second from left) and Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal (fourth from left) with other members of the cast

The Indian version of The Vagina Monologues completes 14 years on the stage next month

“How many of you are comfortable saying the word vagina?” hollers theatre actor and director Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal to a packed audience. A majority of women raise their hands in a jiffy, and a few more follow seconds later, gingerly. The men — who make up a fair percentage of the audience — display ambivalence. It’s full house at the Prithvi Theatre. We squish together closer and closer on the wooden benches to make room for the large turnout. Mahabanoo has lost count of the number of shows she has performed. “I’m sure we’ve touched a thousand at least,” she says, before taking the stage for The Vagina Monologues. As for the warm-up questions, she says they are necessary. “People think ‘vagina’ is a bad word. It’s just a part of the body of over half this world’s population. That’s why I do this little orientation before the play starts,” she explains.

In March this year, Poor-Box productions, run by Mahabanoo and her son Kaizaad Kotwal, will complete 14 years of staging The Vagina Monologues. There are vernacular plays that have been around longer, but in English theatre, it is amongst the longest-running plays. And there too, it stands apart. “We perform more shows in the year than any other play. Most plays, the longer they are around, the audience coming in tends to decrease. Our audiences have only increased,” says Kaizaad. The ‘house-full’ board parked outside all their three shows on a Saturday evening is proof.

The play is an Indian adaptation of American playwright Eve Ensler’s seminal production of the same name. While she can’t “fool around” with the original text, Mahabanoo and the crew have added elements that make it more identifiable. The American and British accents have been replaced by Bengali, Gujarati and Punjabi ones. The character of Bob is now Atul Kulkarni. And in the segment on what the vagina should wear, ermine and mink have been replaced with the more desi Jaipuri razai. The play also has a Hindi version, which is trickier to write given that the Hindi word for vagina is commonly used as an expletive. “It was hard to translate in the sense you don’t want to vulgarise anything. In Indian popular entertainment, when one talks about sex and women, it tends to degenerate into misogyny and cheap thrills,” says Kaizaad. He admits the Hindi version isn’t as popular, but isn’t ready to let go of it yet. “If it was purely an economic decision, the show would have ended a long time ago but we are keeping it alive because we feel it needs to be seen in the language of a lot of country brothers and sisters. Those who have seen both will tell you that the Hindi one is far more visceral,” he adds.

The play’s nearly two-hour running time takes you through a gamut of emotions. Initially, you laugh a lot, then you’re shaken by the personal narratives of sexual abuse and violence, and finally you gape in awe when the actors demonstrate how the sound of an orgasm can resemble that of a machine gun. “This play has never got a bad response. Only one, from a man in Hyderabad, who wrote ‘This is bullshit’ in our comment books,” laughs Mahabanoo. For some, the plays hits home hard. “There was one girl who fainted during the show at Palladium. We stopped the show and took her to the green room. We learnt that her sister was abused by her uncle and the parents had said nothing. I’m told the sister watched the play as well a few months later,” she adds.

The powerful narratives are real stories that have been compiled after interviews with over 200 women of different ages and ethnicities. In Hollywood, actresses Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Marissa Tomei and Jane Fonda have performed in the play. Here, when Mahabanoo tried approaching a “second-level Bollywood star”, she refused because her guru ji would frown upon it. The cast that eventually came together — Dolly Thakore, Jayati Bhatia, Avantika Akerkar and Dr Sonali Sachdev — was the perfect fit. Over the years, many actors have been associated with the play. The most constant feature, apart from Mahabanoo herself, has been Dolly Thakore.

“Many years ago, I was asked to review The Vagina Monologues, the book, for The Sunday Observer,” says Thakore. When Goldie Hawn (one of the Hollywood actresses to have performed in the play) visited India later, Thakore asked her friend Parmeshwar Godrej for the actress’s contact details. “I really wanted to know how they did it,” she says. Thakore sent Hawn a fax but never got a response. Finally she saw the play when she went abroad in 2001. “As it happened, Mahabanoo came to me soon after that. I told her no one is going to be interested in two old women talking about their vaginas. We needed to get some young people in,” she says.

It’s hard to quantify the impact of the play commercially. There is a paucity of venues, and they are only given a few dates a month to perform. To make matters worse, venues like the NCPA have refused to stage the play without giving any reasons. Also, they have to pay for the rights to the original playwright. “It is not easy to survive in theatre. Only masochists like me stay on,” says Mahabanoo. But there’s no dearth of viewers. People who were too young to watch it 14 years ago are now filling the theatres. Kaizaad says that, sadly, the play still resonates with viewers because the issues of abuse and violence are just as germane today as they were 14 years ago: “I often used to say in the early days of the play that we hope that we all seek unemployment soon, which means the need for a play that is about violence against women would have gone away.” That, unsurprisingly, is yet to happen.



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Published on February 05, 2016
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