DISCLAIMER: The following review contains graphic imagery that some readers may find disturbing.
By Lisa Cumming
Floods of tears outnumbered and overwhelmed the audience’s tissues as the curtain closed on the final scene of Nirbhaya.
Saying this production is emotional simply does not do it justice. Nirbhaya transcends the boundaries of the stage and embeds itself so deeply in your own heart; it feels almost as if a knife is ripping through the layers of discipline you have around coming apart at the seams in public. The play is 90 minutes long and has no intermission but don’t expect to want one.
The play, written and directed by Yaël Farber, is a literary nonfiction re-enactment of the vicious gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a bus in New Delhi on December 16, 2012.
Pandey, portrayed by Japjit Kaur, was travelling with a male friend on a private bus in New Delhi when they were attacked. The man was beaten with a metal rod and eventually thrown off the bus with Pandey. The assailants proceeded to savagely rape and beat Pandey for six hours. The list of vile assaults on her includes forceful penetration with a metal rod, enough so to rip out her intestines.
In the beginning of the play, six figures emerge from the audience hands raised in solidarity for Pandey, or as she is most famously called “Nirbhaya”. The name, meaning fearless, has its origins in the Sanskrit language and was given to Pandey as she lay slowly dying in a hospital bed for thirteen days after the attack.
Nirbhaya feature six actors – five women (Priyanka Bose, Poorna Jagannathan, Sneha Jawale, Rukhsar Kabir, and Pamela Mala Sinha) and one man (Ankur Vikal). The storytelling of that abominable night is also combined with the five actresses’ own personal experiences of sexual violence. These women are my heroines.
The stage looks like the site of a sanctified ritual with billows of smoke pouring in from stage left and right and the scent of incense hanging in the air. The five women previously mentioned allow the audience to visualize their stories through the use of commonplace objects – a boy’s blue shirt, a child’s yellow dress, a pink sheet – but in the hands of the actresses these objects turn into talismans. The objects become symbolic of what has been lost, stolen and forgotten.
Farber’s play honours Pandey’s life and legacy by not letting her flame die. The actresses who so bravely share a piece of their heart night after night walk with Pandey even in her afterlife. By sharing her story and theirs, they are refusing to be silenced by those who try to smother their souls and fire. The standing ovation received at the end of the show was well deserved.
The topics covered in Nirbhaya, including violence against women, are ones that everyone should have the privilege of being educated on. Ignoring the facts, refusing to listen to victims of sexual violence, and being a bystander is committing yourself to being a perpetrator of this endemic.
Too often stories like Pandey’s are forgotten and lost in the media after a certain period of time has passed. Farber, by creating this play, has ensured that we as a collective global society keep an open discussion on the implications of the brutality that was inflicted on two innocent human beings.