Nirbhaya: A minority report
Nirbhaya is a courageous piece of theatre but not without its chinks
Autobiographical works of art are a whole different beast. The moment you start to reflect on their honesty and courage, it becomes harder – even feels insensitive – to critique their artistic merit.
Yaël Farber’s Nirbhaya, which premiered in Mumbai on March 17, has been roundly hailed (but for a few exceptions) as powerful and exceptional. And it is, for the most part. Stories of sexual violence that find voice in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape are presented by five actors – Poorna Jagannathan, Sapna Bhavnani, Rukhsar Rehman, Priyanka Bose and Sneha Jawale (Ankur Vikal, excellent as always, plays the male foil to all; Japjit Kaur is the ghost of Nirbhaya). The big reveal at the very end is that these are their true stories. This alone marks the play as an act of courage, hammering home, once again, that rape does not have a demographic and that bearing testimony is vital.
Then there is the bit where the narration by some of the characters becomes so unremittingly melodramatic, it simply walls you out of the emotion. This is where Nirbhaya ceases to have the emotional heft it could’ve. Rape is a horrific crime no matter what its circumstance – and sometimes the best way to reach into the heart of horror, in storytelling, is to eschew one-tone sentimentality for an emotional range. Sapna Bhavnani shows incredible finesse in this respect. Leering and cocky as the born renegade who owns the hell out of her body, she transitions invisibly into the terrified, drunken victim of a brutal gang-rape on a freezing Chicago night. You find you choke as she wills herself to raise her broken body and stagger home, alone and unwitnessed. Sneha Jawale, too, a mother who still wears the scars of her burning at the hands of her husband, weeps anguished tears for the only son he wrenched from her. She is reliving the flames and you’re allowed to be part of this painful private memory.
The re-enactment of the pivotal rape is ham-handed at best – affecting the first time; overkill, the second. Even if you managed to get past it and stay with the mood, the overdramatic last rites that draw out endlessly, puts paid to that. (As Kaur rises from the dead in one final scene, a member of the audience exclaimed, “Oh my god, Jesus!”)
Nirbhaya could have been a great piece of theatre – and met its purpose of rousing its audience to action, too – if its makers wouldn’t insist on underscoring the tragedy quite so much and just trust the power of the stories more.