REAL LIFE IN DRAMA
An actor stripping down to her underwear and two men kissing on stage: with Contempt, theatre that provokes social change seems to have come of age
I’m seated on a funnily-designed chair that allows my knees to be higher than my waist. The position is oddly comfortable after a long day at work. But then, something makes me feel a tinge of discomfort.
You see, I’m in the front row (hence the low chair) at OddBird, an experimental theatre space in Chhatarpur, an area perched precariously between disorderly Delhi and hostile Haryana. And the actor on stage has just stripped down to her underwear.
Now I’m no prude; I’ve been to theatre performances where the audience is encouraged to take off their clothes and dance (email me for that story!). But this evening, sitting close to an Indian state known for oppression and objectification, I steal a glance at the audience around. Nobody seems perturbed.
The actor has an open suitcase at her feet. She continues to pick out clothes from the bag, wear them, then shed them again. She is talking about finding her identity; being lesbian is what comes naturally, but can she change to make herself more readily acceptable to society?
The play is called Contempt, directed by lawyer/ playwright/ activist Danish Sheikh. It is based on the proceedings in the Supreme Court as they re-examined a more progressive High Court judgment. At the time this story goes to press, the matter has been discussed again at length: the mood amongst the LGBTQ community is upbeat, the draconian law is set to go, they say.
On stage, the actor makes her point with aplomb; despite various efforts to change, she “remains lesbian”. When she tells her parents, they take her to a psychiatrist! Danish Sheikh uses poignant stories like these to bring to the audience ones that may be less easily relatable, or entertaining. “I wanted to highlight the conversations that happened in the courtroom to give people a sense of exactly what a deep sense of prejudice lay behind this judgment,” says the director-actor. “I was a member of the litigation team before the Supreme Court in 2012. The Court heard the case over a period of six weeks across March and April. The hearings were a deeply traumatic experience. Every time our lawyers would make an argument about the impact that Section 377 had on the lives of LGBTQ persons, the Court would diverge and ask them largely irrelevant questions about the range of sexual acts that were covered under 377, or how it even applied to queer persons. They refused to truly listen to the stories of pain that were being placed before them. When the verdict came out, it was criticised as being a hateful decision, even as a lot of the court’s prejudice was hidden behind layers of legal obfuscation.”
These questions find prominent mention in the play, and the absurdity of some even make the audience laugh. “I am often asked if some portions are partly fictionalised, even though the audience has been told at the start that they are based on the original proceedings,” says Sheikh. “It is interesting to engage with people’s surprise at the kind of questions the court asked back in 2012. But I’ve had a number of people tell me how moved they are by the testimonies.” Interestingly, I was invited to this play by Meenu Namit, a fellow journalist and editor, whose son Saattvic is one of the leads. Meenu’s husband also plays a character in this play, and the parents unwittingly exemplify a virtue: to be accepting of your child’s sexuality is one thing, to be proud of it is quite another.
“Saattvic was 13 when I first found clippings of men, not women among his things. I was working for
“AT 16, MY SON BROKE DOWN: ‘MAA, DON’T YOU THINK I WANT A WIFE, CHILDREN AND A NORMAL LIFE? YOU KNOW THAT IF I COULD [BE STRAIGHT], I WOULD!’” —MEENU NAMIT, MOTHER OF ACTOR SAATTVIC, WHO IDENTIFIES HIMSELF AS GAY
“IT IS INTERESTING TO ENGAGE WITH PEOPLE’S SURPRISE AT THE KIND OF [ABSURD] QUESTIONS THE COURT ASKED BACK IN 2012” —DANISH SHEIKH, PLAYWRIGHT/ACTOR/ DIRECTOR OF CONTEMPT
Femina then and had several gay friends; but somehow, it didn’t seem okay for my son to be gay. Saattvic was a bright kid with great IQ; he looked it up online and explained to me that sexual orientation was not a choice,” Meenu recalls. “I wasn’t initially accepting. You’re confused, I told him. May be you like women and men. You’re too young to be thinking like this!
“Now I was from a small town and fairly non-conformist myself. I had run away from home and married a man with no surname. When I told my husband, he asked me just once ‘Are you sure? Is he sure?’ and then said, ‘How does it make a difference?’ Namit helped me put things in perspective.
“Through Saattvic’s teenage years, the confusion persisted. He was a regular teen, but I hoped the phase would pass. Until that one day when he was 16 and broke down: ‘Maa, don’t you think that I want a wife, children and a normal life? You know that if I could, I would.’ He sobbed, and I never asked him that question again!”
“It took some time when he brought his first boyfriend home, but I think it was just like my younger son bringing his first girlfriend home. Then later, Saattvic brought so many people who I liked so much, it ceased to make any difference at all!” We are now witnessing the final act of the play. References to Greek mythology are overshadowed by what’s playing out on screen. The two young leads are in an elevator, and the chemistry is palpable. And the play ends like any blockbuster should: sealed with a kiss.
“The kiss has been crucial to the play from its conception. I think of the play as a kind of citizen’s dissent to the Supreme Court decision, and the kiss in particular is a performance of the act that the judgment essentially forbids,” Sheikh explains. “I hope the story has communicated this sense of hope and resilience to the people who’ve seen it. We need to push our institutions, and when they fail, we have to be able to figure out ways of dissenting and living our lives.”
COURTING CONTROVERSY Danish Sheikh’s (inset) play is themed around the Supreme Court’s proceedings around Section 377 in 2012
HIS PARENTS’ PRIDE Saattvic (right), one of the leads in the play, with his parents Namit and Meenu