A Show of Stupidity

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When I heard that The Vagina Monologues — most famously banned in 2004 when Eve Ensler herself was touring the country — was going to be performed in Chennai last week, I thought (like anyone with vaguely literary or liberal ideas) that it was a good step in the right direction. The much-celebrated play was being brought to the city as part of The Times of India‘s Chennai Festival, and a very excited friend grouped together a bunch of her galpals and planned a night out.

The trouble began with the difficulty in getting passes. The person trying to get hold of them was made to run from pillar to post — and it took two days to finally secure the 8 passes we wanted (among other obstacles was the fact that she was told that only one pass could be given per person; we later heard that they were distributing them indiscriminately because so few had been snapped up).

On the night of the play itself, we got to the auditorium early, and were made to queue up in what was thankfully an orderly fashion for about half an hour.

Then we were ushered into the auditorium, had our passes thoroughly checked, led to our seats, and kept from sitting in the front rows, ostensibly for VIPs.

And then we waited. For about forty minutes.

We had heard rumours while standing in line that the play had been cancelled, but were optimistic. All this tamasha and security checks — what excitement! It was bound to be worth it.

Then, two people (one of whom was, I think, the director) came onstage gagged, did something forgetful, and left. Still, we thought there might be hope yet.

And then a young man came on stage and tried to be funny.

He failed. “What play are you here to watch? Say it louder! Well, ladies and gentleman, that is not the show you are going to see tonight. Do you want to know why? Yes? Because the cow jumped over the moon and miscellaneousbullshitIdidn’tcatch.”

Then, almost as an antithesis to the poor dude who thought he was funny, came the man who thought he was leading a revolution.

Among the various things he said about “your great city” and “this great play” and “certain citizens of Chennai do not want a play about violence against women to be performed”, one phrase stands out. “In the spirit of Gandhian love”.

Seriously.

And then, a man took up the mic and… sang.

We left the auditorium as the second song began, and needless to say, we were furious.

But not at the police, not at the “concerned citizens”, and not because the play was banned. These serious questions of censorship, oppression and the silencing of voices against violence against women were not the ones that were asked.

No, the only people we were really pissed off with that night were the sanctimonious production company and the organizers who purported to have all the crusading courage in the world, but absolutely no respect for their audience. We were told somewhere during the speech that the organizers had known for 24 hours that the play had been cancelled.

Despite this, we had all been made to wait (and wait). Not one apology at the door. Not one poster, not one phone call. Not a single thing that showed even the slightest amount of respect for the audience. I live in the city and don’t have children. But what about the people who left work early, who found babysitters, or who commuted from the suburbs, that night?

Why did the organizers/production company take such pleasure in being rude to the audience?

We live in the times we live in. We are all bound by rules. It is how — and for what purpose — we bend or break them that matters.

I’ve directed and performed in a mini-production of The Vagina Monologues, and even at 17 I had enough common sense to do the obvious — substitute the word “vagina” with valenki (Russian for felt boots), thereby not just making a statement about the ridiculousness of censorship, but also letting the larger message of the play come across in spite of it. The Vagina Monologues evolves every year — from a one-woman show with the intention of reclaiming a taboo word, the play has come to be an ongoing international campaign against violence against women. I am aware that Chennai society may not be ready for the word “vagina”, even if it is essentially a medical term, and am not holier-than-thou enough in my feminism to force this issue. We may not be ready for the word, but this does not mean that we are not ready to listen to issues of violence and sexuality.

Or, the organizers could have had an invitee-only event, without publicity. Or a charity gala, with selected monologues performed. Let’s face it — there are only so many types of people in Chennai who would go to this play. Democratic space and free passes are all very nice in theory — but when holding an English play, that too about violence and sexuality, what difference is that honestly going to make?

I don’t know if the production company tried to do these things or anything else, but if they did, I would much rather have been told exactly how they tried to circumvent the censorship than been subjected to a speech about Gandhian love (call me unpatriotic, but did anyone else think of the Mahatma’s famous experiments at celibacy — i.e. naked women sharing his very chaste bed?)

And even if there was just no way around it, why handle the cancellation so selfishly and foolishly?

Ultimately, was the point actually to hold the play and spread its message, or to enjoy the notoriety?

For once, I found myself on the side that didn’t belong to the “artists and feminists”. The production company had a wonderful shot at really raising some issues here in Chennai, whether through their performance or because of the banning of it. They wasted it entirely with their unprofessionalism and myopic sense of the circumstances. I write this as a journalist — if I had been told at the door or through a courteous phone call earlier in the day that the play had been cancelled, I would have turned on my laptop as soon as I could and dedicated column space in support of them. Instead, they turned even their sympathizers away with what was quite frankly a completely stupid and insincere way of dealing with the cancellation. Boo — and please, let someone else do the encore!

Updated: Apparently, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, the director in question, has some kind of axe to grind against Chennai. See the comments.

22 responses »

  1. Ouch. Sounds ridiculous. A question: who are these “people of Chennai” who successfully stopped the staging and can they not be stopped by the law? Chennai is one of our metros, albeit a more conservative one, and surely talking about women’s bodies can’t upset its denizens so much! Or maybe I’m just being naive. My sympathies for the way the production company treated you. I would’ve been stark raving mad. Come to Bombay, girl. Watch it here. :)

  2. Hi, OrangeJammies! I think it’s the same production company as the Bombay/other metros shows, actually. The director was Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal. Perhaps the newspaper may have been responsible for the wait, but a theatre company that agreed or asked to come to a city with a history of prior bannings of this play (fourth time, I’m told) really should have had a better contingency plan!

  3. Kenny — Not poor me. Not nearly as much as people who shifted everything to schedule this play in, or who were really super excited to see it. I was one of the luckier ones, not new to the play and with no other obligations that night.

    Rudhran — Not sure what you mean… But thanks.

  4. An annoyance and a shame. I feel lucky to live in a country that would never ban something like The Vagina Monologues from being seen. I have just come across your blog and really enjoy your writing. I will be back :-)

    LM

  5. Good grief.

    I’m glad you wrote this. I just wish there was a way to plaster these words all over the city, in every little over-oranged coffee shop.

    The red-tape isn’t that hard, and considering the sort of thing that has been allowed performance space in the last few years, [I think back to a spectacularly fabulous German troupe on roller skates & in underwear who performed at the Chinmaya Center as part of the Other festival in 2004] I would think the show wouldn’t have met any real sanctions if, *if* someone had made sure that the paperwork was done, the right folks spoken to, the right dotted lines signed.
    The worst part about wash-outs like this is that it’s mostly due to someone not doing their job within the performance group.
    O Production values, ye hoors.
    Terrible that you had to sit through even a part of that. What was the venue it was scheduled to be at?

  6. I saw the play a few months ago in Mumbai, and Mahabanoo mentioned that they had tried to do it earlier in Chennai but without much success. Apparently, the Commissioner or someone did not permit it. Which is why it surprises me that they didn’t try a different route this time around.

    As for the play itself, I found the performance somewhat uneven. They did a fair job of adapting some of the demographics to an Indian setting, though — the standout for me was the “furniture” monologue performed in Maharashtrian-accented English. The “flood” monologue was done as if by an old Parsi lady — that was quite okay as well. I wonder if that sort of thing would work in Chennai. The content is good, but the presentation might need some work. Madisaar maami instead of a Parsi lady? I’m not so sure…

    ~ramsu

    ps: Felt boots? :-D

  7. I’ve actually seen a performance of this play in college in Bangalore. A group came down specially and performed it. Surprisingly, nothing went wrong – even the faculty said nothing against the play.

  8. Hey,
    Linked to ur blog from IndiaUncut. Interesting.
    I saw the play in Mumbai a few years back, after which they keep doing it here every few months to packed houses.
    Its sad that Chennai gets to miss out on a brilliant performance and more importantly, a powerful message, because a few people have closed their minds to new experiences and very honestly, the truth.

  9. @Sharanya: Oh dear, yes, that’s Poor Box productions alright. And I do remember MMK saying they had prior trouble obtaining the requisite permissions in Chennai. Has anybody done a piece about this in the newspapers?

    @Ramsu (Sharanya, I hope it’s okay to cross-comment?): Interesting point about the Parsi lady monologue… not as many folks would get that in Chennai, no? :) I personally loved it, but that’s because I could totally relate. ;)

  10. LiteraryMinded — Welcome to the blog :) Am not entirely sure about the intricacies of this ban, because it’s been performed elsewhere in the country, but the powers-that-be in Chennai have resisted.

    Sowmya — Thanks. Lovely meeting you too.

    WizardofOdd — Vani Mahal. Yeah. Heh. As for plaster over city, Amit Varma linked, so…

    Ramsu — Heh, the flood piece by a madisaar maami? Someone should take that idea up!

    Aandthirtyeights — Well, TVM in its most widely-known avatar today is a college-based campaign. Great that Indian colleges are picking it up. Though honestly, with the kind of brainwashing the women’s colleges of Chennai do, it would be total hypocrisy if it was done in a college here. Interesting, but hypocrisy. Someone told me about a production of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls…” at one of the worst-offender colleges here, and what an epic fail it was.

    Avantika — Chennai will catch up, we will! :)

    OrangeJammies — Didn’t see anything in the papers, but I don’t read all of them… And cross-comment away!

  11. Why don’t u mention the name of the organizers in your post. If the viral power of the internet can cause some damage (however little) to their goodwill, that would be nice.

  12. Actually in many of the play’s stagings, the director (Mahabanoo) starts off with an introduction to its history (abroad and in India) and makes it a point to mention “how Chennai has no ‘vaginas’ and therefore must be full a#&*holes.”
    I didn’t realise the ban still prevails. Seriously, come to Mumbai and watch the English and Hindi versions, back to back. :)

  13. Bluesprite — Seriously? OMG. I’m sorry but that’s downright rude, painting Chennai as the “spinster sister”. After the fiasco they put up last week, I’m inclined to believe there is more to this than straightforward censorship. As WizardofOdd, herself a theatre practitioner, pointed out, as long as the paperwork and other necessities are secured, Chennai’s theatregoers are receptive, and the police (moral and otherwise) don’t bother too much. From what I saw last week, Poorbox Productions milked the cancellation quite a bit.

  14. I have seen TVM thrice (don’t ask why!), over a span of 4 years (the last time being just a day after Chennai Cancellation) and MMK has made it a point to mention “Chennai and it’s no Vaginas, all assholes” theory every time.

    In fact, I started suspecting that either she is making it all up (Chennai shows being canceled) or she ACTUALLY WANTS that Chennai shows GET canceled. That kind of opening line does fill the audience (of another city) with great self-pride and bestows on them a ‘responsibility’ to like the play.

    So, in a way, it’s ‘snob value sharing’ with the audience.

    P.S. – I can see a PIL coming their way.

    P.S. 2 – I can see MMK somehow using this PIL as another standup-punch against Chennai.

    *sigh*

  15. True. Now that Varun and bluesprite mention it, I remember MMK using the a**holes line in the show I went to as well. As a Chennai-ite, I felt a bit discomfited by that but didn’t dwell on it. My guess is that she did face some problems in Chennai, but uses it mostly to make the production seem romantic and courageous and what not.

    The way I see it, the play doesn’t need the help. Just stage it and it will make its point.

    ~r

  16. hmm, so i can put some words behind that face on facebook.
    hi there!

    Sucky exp. I’d be pretty pissed too, did the orgranisers have anythin to say later?

  17. Varun, Ramsu — So, basically, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal hates Chennai, huh? Hmm!

    Prasanna — Face on Facebook? Huh? I don’t know if the organisers said anything later — not that I’m aware of, at least.

  18. I attended the TVM show in Bangalore on 5th Sept. 2009 as part of a International Tourism event (can’t connect the two though). Ms. Mody mentioned about the event in Chennai (no vaginas and all a**holes). As i understand myself about Chennai, and i am from Chennai too, though working for last 10 years in Bangalore, people in Chennai really don’t take up arms against such displays of professional art, so definitely it doesn’t look like a censorship issue at least from the people of Chennai. However, if Ms. Mody goes around Chennai-bashing at every forum, she is not doing her profession any good. After all, a play if it is worth it, will gain its audience anywhere, nobody can stop them.

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