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Indianizing 'The Vagina Monologues'
A mother and son tear down historical taboos with their Indianized adaptation of Eve Ensler's provocative play at Mumbai's The Comedy Store
Just because "The Vagina Monologues" will be performed at The Comedy Store, do not expect an evening of frivolous entertainment. Mahabanoo Mody–Kotwal, the co-director and co-producer of Eve Ensler's world famous play in Mumbai, remembers when a journalist once misquoted her calling the play a "sex comedy."
"That's not what it is," she says firmly.
For the uninitiated, the play is (as the title suggests) a series of monologues that use the female body part to discuss many possible facets of the female world experience -- ranging from birth to rape to menstruation. The raw monologues tear through taboos, leaving a whirlwind of liberation and release wherever it has been performed since its premier at the HERE Arts Center in New York City on October 3, 1996.
How do you Indianize the script without changing it?
When the play was first brought to India in 2003, it had the same electrifying effect on local audiences as it had in other parts of the world. Kaisad Kotwal, the other co-director and producer, confirms that after every show, "Many women come to speak to us and the actresses -- they are always very moved, and they share their personal stories with us."
While Mumbai audiences applauded the play, many theater houses weren't as keen. "The play was effectively banned in most South Bombay theaters," says Mody-Kotwal's son, co-director and producer Kaisad. "Even though we passed the state censorship board, many theaters refused to run it, though they never told us why," he adds.
The Comedy Store, which plans to bring plays and concerts as well as stand-up comedy to its stage, has given the production a new breath of life by giving it a more stable platform. "The plan is for us to perform on the last weekend of every month," says Kaisad.
The play's success in India can be attributed not only to Ensler's script, but also to the subtle Indianization of the play by the Kotwals.
"We are not allowed to change the script, but we have been able to adapt the cultural references for an Indian audience," says Kaisad. "There was a 72-year-old woman who was Jewish in the original script, and we made her Parsi, for example. The Parsis and the Jews have many similarities, which we benefitted from." These kinds of cultural transpositions were achieved through minute changes -- like giving a character a different name, or a regionally specific accent.
"With one of the characters, a psychoanalyst, we gave him a Bengali accent. We left his script untouched, but the very fact that he had that accent brought with it a whole set of associations to the mind of the audience -- the eccentricity and intellectual aura of the Bengalis."
Do Bollywood actresses do stage?
Apart from cultural adjustments, the play has also benefitted from a cast of bold women, who took roles others turned down out of fear. The cast includes the likes of Dolly Thakore, who was the first female TV anchor in India and was the casting director for Richard Attenbourgh's Oscar-winning film "Gandhi."
There are also members of the cast whose passion and commitment to the play outweigh their lack of previous professional experience. Sonali Sachdev, for example, was previously a dentist but decided to give up everything to pursue acting. She asked Mahabanoo if she could sit in during the rehearsals, and from there she got increasingly involved with the production until she finally bagged a lead role in the play.
Jayati Bhatia, a TV actress who also performs on stage, starred in a Kotwal production previously and was approached by the producers very early on. Bhatia, a Dehliite who had a sheltered upbringing, says, "I didn't know much about women's lib when I was growing up, and even less about how to achieve it!" After reading the script Bhatia, who has played Blanche in an Indian production of "A Street Car Called Desire," knew she would take the role despite opposition. "In TV serials, the attitudes can be quite conservative. I remember telling people on set that I was doing this play and they thought I was doing porn!" She adds, "It takes a lot of grit and strength to go and talk about these issues on stage."
The final cast member, Avantika Akerkar, an actress of many years, first watched "The Vagina Monologues" when she was living in the United States. Akerkar, who is the sister of Indigo chef Rahul Akerkar, has always been passionate about social causes and supports various social initiatives in Mumbai. The Vagina Monologues thus offered her the theatrical outlet for issues that are close to her heart.
Before signing on these women the producers approached famous Bollywood actresses. What a disaster. "None of them wanted to do the play," recalls Kaisad. "Some of them had really crazy excuses. One of them actually said 'I can't say the word [vagina]. I just can't say it. What will my parents think?'"
Hopefully, this play -- and its able cast -- will take away this unnecessary shame for good.
"The Vagina Monologues" is running at The Comedy Store, Palladium mall, Lower Parel at 6 p.m. on August 28 and 29. Tickets are priced at Rs 400 each and can be booked through www.bookmyshow.com, tel. +91 (0) 22 3989 5050. Or at The Comedy Store box office on the 3rd Floor of the Palladium Mall or call +91 (0) 22 43485000.