Brutal truth

After news of a brutal gang rape on a Delhi bus spread across the world, South African playwright Yael Farber teamed up with actor Poorna Jagannathan to shed light on a culture of violence against women. Jo Caird talks to them about Nirbhaya.

feature | Read in About 5 minutes
Published 22 July 2013

On 16 December 2012, 23-year-old paramedical student Jyoti Singh Pandey was gang raped and brutally beaten on a Delhi bus, before being dumped at the side of the road. While the overwhelming majority of incidents of sexual violence in India go unreported and unnoticed, this one caught the attention of the media. As the alleged perpetrators were arrested and charged, the subcontinent erupted in anger and fear, with protestors and politicians condemning not just this brutal attack but a culture in which sexual violence against women is endemic.

Two weeks later, Nirbhaya, as Singh Pandey was referred to before her real name was released to the media, died of her injuries at a hospital in Singapore. At the time of writing, the trial of her alleged murderers continues.

In the days after Singh Pandey's death, Mumbai-based actor Poorna Jagannathan approached South African playwright and director Yael Farber with an idea for a project based on the case. Nirbhaya, the play Farber and her all-Indian cast have crafted this spring and summer, premieres at the Assembly Hall this August.

Jagannathan remembered being struck by a play of Farber's she had seen years previously, a 'testimonial work' called Amajuba that explores the horrors of apartheid through the personal experiences of cast members. “You actually don’t watch Yael’s plays, you witness them,” recalls the actor. “You see truth on stage like you’ve never seen before, you see actors bare themselves and you witness healing.”

Having corresponded initially via Facebook, the pair decided that this approach could be an effective way of bringing to life the issues around the rape case and the culture of sexual violence that permitted it to occur.

Farber and Jagannathan put out a casting call for actors with personal experience of sexual violence who would be, in the playwright's words, “courageous enough to work on such material”. Including Jagannathan, there are seven in the cast, six women and one man.

Collaboration is a fundamental aspect of the process. Farber is keenly aware of her status as an outsider to this culture; she sees herself as “a someone who can metabolise and structure what is already out there into a work of theatre. It is an endeavour that tolerates little ego”.

Intense concentration is required, says Farber, who is based in India for the duration of the rehearsal process. So intense, in fact, that she will only answer my questions via email, not wishing to be distracted by a phone interview. She is working “very obsessively and without respite”, she says, writing at night and directing during the day, her mind constantly “turning [the issues of the play] over like a Rubik's Cube”.

Farber has been lauded as a writer and as a director—most recently for Mies Julie, the modern-day, South Africa-based adaptation of August Strindberg's 1888 play that won last year's Best of Edinburgh Award—but it's directing that comes more naturally, she says.

“Writing is another animal altogether. I never have enough time as a writer. That's how it has always panned out for me... I work hot and fast as a writer, with great urgency.”

With Nirbhaya of course, there is an additional pressure, to get the play in front of audiences while the story of Singh Pandey's rape and murder is still fresh in people's minds. Issues have their time when at their most potent in the public eye and are then gone from view in our saturated world,” says Farber. “The time for this story—these narratives and this issue—is now. The death of Nirbhaya brought this issue front centre.”

In December the company will perform the play to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack. Jagannathan particularly wants Nirbhaya to be seen “by people who don’t normally go to the theatre”. She and Farber hope to tour it elsewhere too: “I cannot think of a single country that does not have to—on some level—address sexual violence in its social fabric,” says the director.

Critical success, Farber says, is “a great barometer on gauging if one is capturing the zeitgeist of the society the work is showing to,” but on a project like Nirbhaya it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

“I want the most for the art so that its potency enables the message to fly at full velocity and accuracy. And so in a way there is less focus on personal achievement and more on the effectiveness of the work.”

Whether in Edinburgh, India, or wherever else it plays, Nirbhaya is intended as nothing less than a call to arms. Farber hopes that the play will motivate audiences “to speak about their own experiences with clarity and truth.”

“It is the fabric of silence around the world that enables sexual violence to continue unabated; the enduring myth that the victim and not the perpetrator has lost their honour. The irony of this is an enslavement to silence – and so change remains buried as a possibility. By speaking out a society is able to reckon with itself."