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

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Gender - By Jamal Shaikh

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

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