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No hand of god

mohini chaudhuri | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on October 09, 2015

Questions of faith: A scene from Kaizaad Kotwal’s Agnes of God, based on a play written by American John Pielmeier. The plot is said to be inspired by the true story of a pregnant nun. Photo: Sheriar Irani

A play is ready but finds no stage — theatre man Kaizaad Kotwal is in the eye of a storm as fringe Catholic groups want a ban on his latest production

In March this year, Mumbai-based theatre actor, director and producer Kaizaad Kotwal wrote an impassioned letter to American comic Jerry Seinfeld, imploring him not to perform in India. At the time, the city was just about recovering from the long-drawn drama over comedy collective AIB’s infamous roast which ended with FIRs being slapped on everyone involved. Seeing how things turned out, Kaizaad thought it was in Seinfeld’s best interests to stay away. “Who knows what moral brigade may take offence at something you say and press criminal charges against you? Who knows what small word/gesture you deliberately/otherwise use shall cause harm/offence to someone who has the right to pursue this in our courts of law?” he wrote in a blog published on The Huffington Post. Seinfeld didn’t end up coming. It wasn’t Kotwal’s pleas, but Mumbai Police’s concern over parking at the venue that finally pulled the plug on the much-awaited show.

The contents of Kaizaad’s letter now seem eerily prophetic. Early last week Kaizaad and his mother Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal — both prominent theatre personalities — became victims of the very same things it warned of. The Kotwals, who run the company Poor Box productions, were all set to debut their latest play, Agnes of God, at the Sophia Bhabha Auditorium on October 4, when the venue backed out. The subject of the play, especially the newspaper ads promoting it, was strongly condemned by the Bombay Archdiocese, the highest Catholic body of the western region. But the loudest noise was made by the fringe group Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) or, as Kaizaad describes them, “The same guys who chased AIB.”

“The notion that art can still be dangerous thrills me,” said Kaizaad, as he addressed a packed auditorium on Monday, a day after his cancelled show. His choked voice was a giveaway of the pain he had endured over the past few days. Unwilling to be bullied by the CSF, he invited his friends and the who’s who of the theatre fraternity for a special premiere at the Tata Theatre of the National Centre of Performing Arts. The play was staged to a packed house, which applauded in solidarity. But amidst all the cheer, there were reminders of the threats surrounding the event. The most obvious one being the police van parked outside and a group of constables seated at a close distance from the stage to protect the actors.

“I never thought it (police protection) would be necessary for a simple work of art. In the last 20 years, we’ve become increasingly intolerant. We have to fight back, we have to restore freedom, and make this a better democracy,” says Kaizaad. It’s the morning after his successful premiere and the director is already at the shoot of a television serial. Later that day, he has an advertisement to film. “Legal bills have to be paid,” he says with a laugh. Minutes before, Kaizaad had been informed of an FIR filed against him at Bandra police station. “It is interesting they went to the Bandra Police Station because that’s not where the play took place. It is a predominantly Christian area and they are using those sentiments to fan flames. They are very savvy in that sense. This is their modus operandi. They are not really concerned about hurt sentiments,” he adds.

The argument about hurt sentiments doesn’t hold water. This isn’t the first time that Agnes of God has been staged in India, or Mumbai in particular. The play was written by American John Pielmeier more than 30 years ago. Though its premise is controversial, the play had a great run on Broadway (back when it opened in 1982) and was adapted into a 1985 film starring Jane Fonda. One can access the film on YouTube. The plot is said to be inspired by the true story of a pregnant nun who insisted the child was the result of a virgin conception. “The play questions the sacrifice of nuns. Now, they will sell the tickets for hundreds of rupees,” said Joseph Dias, the general secretary of CSF, in a statement.

Dias concluded the contents of the play were problematic based on an advertisement he saw in the papers. To allay his fears, the Kotwals offered to pull the ads, but Dias wanted more. “Their advocate Joseph Sodder told me, ‘I’ve filed a case against Karan Johar and Ranveer Singh. Who are you? I’ll put you in jail.’ So that’s what they want,” says Kaizaad. The CSF website proudly lists other books and films (including The Da Vinci Code) that the group has managed to stall.

Meanwhile, Kaizaad is left to deal with the huge financial loss this ugly episode has cost him. “We don’t have sponsors. We make our money from tickets. So now I’ve got a ready product but no places to perform,” he says. The Sophia College has scrapped all his bookings till April next year, and this will likely impact the decision of other venues as well. “But I know there will be venues that will come up and support us,” he says, in a voice filled with hope.

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Published on October 09, 2015
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