Yael Farber and Poorna Jagannathan’s production “Nirbhaya” that premiered at the Edinburgh festival last year has come to Mumbai at the NCPA

Die Verrohung des Franz Blum (The Brutalisation of Franz Blum)  is a 1974 German film directed by Reinhard Hauff, and based on a novel written by Burkhard Driest. It tells the story of a young, carefree Franz, born into a well-off family, who falls in bad company and ends up taking part in a bank robbery. He is arrested by the police and sent to prison for six years. In jail he quickly realises that in order to survive in a world he does not understand, where brute force and ignorance are more important than anything else, he will need to fight back and become as brutal and evil as his co-prisoners; as also the guards and the wardens. Gradually, Franz Blum becomes one of the most influential of the prisoners and the lord of his own gang. Much like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, the film describes how rapidly a society can descend from innocence and decency to utter depravity and inhuman brutality. Brutalisation of society and individuals is a subject as old as the hills and in any history of the world we will find that it is the brutes who have dominated its pages, while the reconcilers are few and far between. India, perhaps, could have been an exception in the sense that it has produced many more reconcilers in its long history than has been the case with other nations. A long list would begin with the Buddha, followed by  Mahaveer, Asoka, Guru Nanak and the other Sikh Gurus (notably Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh) and perhaps end with Mahatma Gandhi. However, notwithstanding the interregnums  of reconciliation ushered in by these great souls, the history of India is drenched in rivers of blood that precipitated into a flood in the Partition of 1947.

On December 16th, 2012, a young, innocent girl, learning to become a physiotherapist, someone who would one day help heal damaged human bodies, became one more victim of a senselessly  inhuman and horribly depraved, brutal crime. Defying description, using the word ‘rape’ for it would be too mild. When the details of this horrible crime emerged, there was a spontaneous reaction from the common people, first in Delhi, and then across the country, showing their solidarity with the victim and demanding immediate and resolute action from the government. That this could happen to a woman in Delhi, a Union Territory having a three-times-running woman Chief Minister, whose party President also happens to be a woman, magnified the hideousness of the crime. An outpouring of grief and utter helplessness of this scale had perhaps not been seen before in this country. The authorities, especially the Police, responded in the only predictable way they would – with tear gas and water cannons to disperse the peaceful and unarmed protestors. Meanwhile, the administration, knowing that the poor girl was beyond saving, flew her out of the country, thereby hoping to save face and not have her die on their hands. It further compounded its folly by another act of extreme cowardice when, thirteen days later, the dead body of the girl was brought back surreptitiously and cremated almost immediately on arrival in the wee hours of the morning.

The fact that the perpetrators were quickly caught and tried in a fast court that awarded extreme punishment to them may have given some sense of closure to the girl’s family, but has done little to reduce the incidents of criminal acts against women. One would think that the 24/7 exposure by the media would bring so much revulsion in the minds of men that they would at least pause and think before they contemplated an act of violence against a woman, but there seems to be no let up and hardly a day passes without an act of brutality being reported against a woman.

NIRBHAYA Credit William Bur Nirbhayas Story   The Brutalisation of a Society

Nirbhaya’s story has now become the subject of mainstream theatre and dance. Yael Farber and Poorna Jagannathan’s production that premiered at the Edinburgh festival last year, and has been drawing packed houses wherever staged, has come to Mumbai, and I went to see it on the 19th of March at the NCPA. Apart from the reenactment of the horrible events of that December night in Delhi, the play narrates the personal stories of five women who have suffered inhuman abuse at the hands of their family and strangers. The anguish and trauma of the performers, based on their personal experiences brings home, as never before, the immediacy of this huge social problem.

Writing in The Telegraph, Laura Barnett says: “This is consciousness-raising theatre of the old school, emphasising the fact that Pandey’s suffering has lifted the veil of silence regarding women in India and beyond. As one performer says: ‘we can be silent no more.’ That is reason enough to see this urgent, compelling show.”

This piece is not another critical appraisal of the play or the performers. The play does not ask for evaluation of its script, production craft, style, acting, or the other attributes of theatre; these questions seem irrelevant and irreverent. Rather, it is about the brutalisation of our society and its acceptance as part of the price of living. It is about that moment in life that forces one to look upon oneself as human and demands that one must take some kind of action; otherwise one can read the newspapers and congratulate oneself on one’s good fortune. It is about each one of us asking what we can do to humanise society once again. It is about not walking away or driving with our eyes averted whenever we come across an act of violence at home or in the streets, but to confront the evil as fearlessly as we can, and providing help and succour to the victims. We may not be able to prevent similar tragedies from happening but timely intervention with firm intent may help them from spiralling out of control and contain the violence.

Performances like the one I saw are important in their own way, but their reach is limited in terms of the language and the target audience. Nirbhaya, the Play, needs to be performed in local languages and dialects and made to travel across the country, and staged in small towns and villages. Social groups, NGOs, and donations from people can fund the costs of this national enterprise, even if the government is unwilling to do so. Yale Farber and the cast of the play have lit the first candle. We must help them in keeping the flame alive!

By Vijaya Dar

Also See:
NIRBHAYA – Breaking the silence about violence against women
Nirbhaya Case First Judgement : 3 Years for the Juvenile

Image Source : Nirbhaya

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