NCPA Production in association with Fats The Arts are doing a play called Shikhandi – based on one of the earliest transgender characters known in mythology. It is a comic tongue-in-cheek re-telling of the character and is directed by Faezeh Jalali who is best known for her work in films like Slumdog Millionaire, Shaitan and Qissa. The play was runner-up at the Sultan Padamsee Playwriting Awards 2016 and is running at NCPA centre from 21st-23rd March.
Here is quick chat with the very talented Faezeh Jalali.
I created a one-woman show in Berlin in a theatre programme in 2010. But somehow from the moment I read about Shikhandi I related to her character.
Maybe because when I was a child, I always wanted to be a boy. Who knows. I just generally can’t really understand gender-roles.
Shikhandi is a transperson. Perhaps one of the earliest trans characters written of. And i always imagine her as someone who has embraced her maleness and femaleness and androgyny. So like she’s all of us. In the Mahabharata she played a big part in the Pandavas winning the war.
The character is a trans character who was Amba in her previous life and to take revenge on Bheeshma (there is a backstory to that), she has to be reborn as a male. She is reborn female, raised as a male but on her wedding night she found out that she is a girl. There is a big hullabaloo and she runs off into the forest and a Yaksha gives his penis to her so that she can consummate her marriage. Once Shikhandi consummates her marriage, she goes to return the penis but the Yaksha tells her that you can have it till you take your revenge on Bheeshma. So that’s the basic storyline from the Mahabhatara.
What I have done is that I have played a little bit with the storyline. There is no real reason in the Mahabharata text as to why the Yaksha gives the penis to her. So I have made a parallel story of the Yaksha also being transgender. He is male but wants to be female and hence wants to give his penis to her. Their paths cross in the forest when she runs away on her wedding night. There is a lot of commenting on the current day gender politics, sexuality that is also a part of the play.
Q. Patriarchy, Feminism, Queerness: does the play talk about these subjects with the killer wit you are famous for?
I don’t know if I’m known for killer wit, but yes. This is all addressed.
Q. Why is theatre such a good vehicle for the kinds of narratives that you’re sharing?
It’s a direct medium it’s here and now. And it can create dialogue immediately.
Q. Tell us a little about your actors?
It’s an ensemble piece so everybody is playing different characters at different points. Mahnaz Damania is playing Shikhandi and Vikrant Dhote is playing Sthuna who is the Yaksha who gives his penis to her. Each of the other characters play multiple characters from the beginning to the end. Nikhil Murali is playing Dhrupad who is Shikhandi’s father. He is also playing Bheeshma who is the person Shikhandi has to take revenge on. He is also playing one of the five Pandavas. Shrishti Shrivastava is playing Dhraupadi and Shikhandi’s wife and she is playing Amba who is Shikhandi is her past life.
Q. What would you do if you were granted the gender you are not born into for a day?
Use a urinal.
Q. How do you make sense of such queerness?
There’s nothing to make sense of. We are who we are.