Nirbhaya is by no means an easy play to watch. It is like receiving a hard kick between your legs, providing an unflinching account of the extremity of violence against women and of the prevalence of abuse.
Recounting Delhi’s infamous gang-rape incident of December 2012, the play takes the story of the victim – dubbed by the media as “Nirbhaya” or ‘fearless one’ – into the lives of five specific women actors.
Backtracking to a few months before that fateful December night, audiences are introduced to a self-driven and motivated woman from a middle-class family. Nirbhaya convinces her father to use the money he has saved for her wedding on her medical school education instead. While in med-school she falls in love – yet the relationship is not to succeed due to class and caste differences. It all sounds like the making of a movie. Sadly we all know how the story ended.
Yael Farber, the award winning South African playwright, poignantly juxtaposes stories that express the unrestrained pain, anger and frustration almost all women felt upon hearing of the brutal rape. Tied in with Nirbhaya’s story, the playwright skillfully interweaves instances of sexual abuse, gang rape and domestic violence the actors have personally experienced, leaving viewers both shocked and overwhelmed.
News and events surrounding the rape transports each actor to an earlier time in their own personal story, taking audiences through their journey of victimization and documenting their struggle as they deal and cope with sexual abuse. The honesty and truthfulness of these stories enacted by a brilliant and talented cast reveals the stark reality of the prevalence of sexual abuse. The beauty of the play lies in the fact that no graphic description is spared by actors in their narration. Everything revealed to us is real, raw and visceral, and hits us hard.
Undoubtedly the power of play lies in the fact that you are watching and hearing the stories of real survivors. Actors who we know in our daily lives progress from being victims to true victors; once silent about their abuse, they no longer feel the need to keep it all bottled up. Most importantly, the play reminds us of the inspiration Nirbhaya is for victims, people who have ignored their abuse for many years. It also criticizes society for perpetuating and promoting silence around subjects like rape and abuse, by wrapping them in shame and guilt. Nirbhaya reminds us to reclaim something we had forgotten belonged to us: our bodies.
One’s private parts are a public battlefield in contemporary India, where sex between consenting adults is outlawed if deemed “against the order of nature” as with Section 377, and where politicians offer atrocious ‘solutions’ to rape. Case in point is Samajwadi Party Leader from Maharastra, Abu Azmi, who suggests that, as with premarital sex, when a rape is committed, both the woman and the man – consenting or not – should be “hanged.”
It is a fair argument that one doesn’t need such episodes to remind us of patriarchy and violence against women across the world. One does not need such plays for us to take matters in our hand and feel the need to act. One did not need for Nirbhaya to suffer and die for people to speak up.
Nirbhaya points to a shift in power, where women transcend shame and talk about abuse. Such narratives create a space for others to openly talk about their stories. And perhaps that’s the beginning of catharsis, one which will eventually lead to a revolution.
It is not a matter of pride that the entire nation spoke up for Nirbhaya. Rather it is critical at this juncture to recognize that women have taken up matters in their own hands. They are not relying on the State to help or protect them anymore. They have realized the power of their voice, and it is fearless. That is where the real hope lies.
[*Jointly written with Chiklet]