Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal’s powerful The Vagina Monologues has entered its 16th year in India, highlighting the issue of violence against women, says Menka Shivdasani
On March 24, 2018, Mahabanoo Mody- Kotwal’s The Vagina Monologues entered its 16th year in India at The Canvas Laugh Club, Palladium Mall. “It was Kaizaad [Kotwal] who wanted to do the play,” says Mahabanoo, speaking of her son, who is a producer, director, actor, writer, designer and recipient of the Emmy Award for Art Direction in 1996. “I was reluctant; there was censorship in theatre. I mulled over it for a year, and Kaizaad gave me a ticket to watch the show. I was blown away.”
Mahabanoo asked author Eve Ensler for the rights in the year 2000, was surprised to receive a censor certificate in India within a month in 2002, and thought she would do “two or three shows” before closing it. More than 15 years later, the Kotwals’ Poor-Box Productions has performed more than 1,000 shows, and it is still drawing enthusiastic audiences—including those who have watched it several times earlier.
The play, performed with gusto by the actors, has everyone in splits; what makes it truly heart-warming is that after all these years, the actors themselves seem to clearly be enjoying the show as they perform it. With Ensler’s permission, it also has local flavour; the American play features the ‘voices’ of elderly Parsi and Gujarati women talking about parts of their body they have never discussed publicly before!
Yet, through all the laughter, Ensler’s Obie Award-winning winning play, written after interviewing 200 women worldwide, including Bosnia and Kosovo, highlights some serious issues—rape, genital mutilation, women’s sense of comfort with their own bodies and much more; for many people in the audience, it cuts to the bone.
Mahabanoo recalls how, when she was on a flight, a complete stranger came up and asked, “Can I give you a hug?” After seeing the play, this young girl told her, she decided to walk out of a three-and-a-half year abusive marriage. “The play saved my life,” she said. Another time, the show had to be stopped because a woman fainted during the performance; it turned out that she had seen her 10-year-old sister being raped, and watching The Vagina Monologues helped her bring closure on the trauma. “Later the sister came to meet us as well,” Mahabanoo recalls. Women also often come backstage to talk about their own stories about genital mutilation; the play offers statistics on the subject and opened up discussion on the topic much before the issue came up in the public domain.
A subject such as this is bound to make some people uncomfortable, and of course, in our warped society, there have been allegations of obscenity; Mahabanoo has indignantly told a male theatre director that if he found this “titillating”, then he needed a “mind check”! Dolly Thakore, who has been an integral part of The Vagina Monologues over all these years, once spoke to then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav about some objections that had been raised to the play; he assured her there would be no problems if it was performed.
Several celebrities have also been extremely supportive. Mallika Sherawat performed at the 100th show on May 29, 2005, and in March 2009, to celebrate the 200th show, several Bollywood stars including Imran Khan, Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, Loveleen Tandan, Sandip Soparrkar, Sid Makkar, Jessy Randhawa, Smilie Suri and Nairika Kotwal-Cornett participated. Singer Usha Uthup has also been a great supporter, and Manasi Scott, Suchitra Pillai and Chitrangada Singh, Pritish Nandy, Sakshi Tanwar have also supported them at fund-raisers.
One of the highlights of the production in India, however, was when Hollywood stars Jane Fonda and Marisa Tomei performed with the troupe, touring Mumbai and Delhi in 2004. Eve Ensler was here too, and Mahabanoo says, “She loved the energy of the show!”
Over the last 15 years, it has been performed in Bengaluru and Kolkata, in Mumbai and in Delhi, in Chennai, Gujarat, Lucknow and Sri Lanka, to name just a few places. “Tata Experimental [in Mumbai] won’t allow us to stage it—they used to when Jamshed Bhabha was there,” says Mahabanoo, “but we have performed it for 1200 women constables when Rakesh Maria was Police Commissioner.”
Now, they even do free shows in bastis, with snacks and cold drinks, in a Hindi translation under the title Kissa Yoni Ka. “Some of these women have never been to the theatre,” says Mahabanoo. “Their reaction is fantastic. The women have become very bold and even the men have started talking to other men about violence towards women.” Mahabanoo and Kaizaad ended up creating the Make-A-Difference Foundation to raise funds to help end violence against women; a major beneficiary is the SNEHA NGO in Dharavi. One of the people that the Kotwals have helped in furthering her skills is Haseena Hussein, victim of an acid attack. She is totally blind, but now holds a permanent job and mentors other acid attack victims.
Powerful performances over the years by actors such as Dolly Thakore, Avantika Akerkar, Jayati Bhatia, Sonali Sachdev, Swati Das, Varshaa Agnihotri, Priyanka Setia, Mona Ambegaonkar and Mahabanoo herself have kept the play fresh and engaging.
If you haven’t seen it yet—and even if you have—this is one show you shouldn’t miss!
Play The Vagina Monologues
Produced by Poor-Box Productions
Directed by Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal and Kaizaad Kotwal
Shows this month
April 14 and 15 (6.00 pm)
April 28 and 29 (6.00 pm)
Where The Canvas Laugh Club, Palladium
Tickets at venue or on www.bookmyshow.com