A voice message left behind for her mother by an Iranian woman on death row has sparked off a new Indian play 07/07/07 that is part of an impressive line-up at the NCPA Centrestage Festival 2015, which commenced on Friday. Reyhaneh Jabbari was executed by hanging in Tehran a little more than a year ago, and director Faezeh Jalali seeks to commemorate her through her own words, using the voice message that went viral on the Internet and led to an international furore, and a blog published by her lawyer. Jabbari’s so-called crime was to fatally stab a man she said had attempted to rape her. Given Jalali’s grounding in physical theatre, her ensemble of 10 actors navigate this emotional minefield with their bodies and voices, to give us an array of incarcerated women whose lives follow similar patterns. The play, 07/07/07, recalls the day of the stabbing (7 July 2007), a creative choice that sets the tone for a piece not necessarily concerned with the politics of capital punishment, as it is with the snuffing out of women’s lives.

Another meditation on death, albeit in a breezier vein is The Living Room, the directorial debut of Kalki Koechlin, one of the festival’s marquee names. Koechlin has written a text rife with witticisms, that her actors have likely relished, and Neil Bhoopalam in “blueface" plays a bumbling Death-incarnate eager for another tick in his roster of doom. The old woman whose life he is claiming is played by the live wire Sheeba Chaddha. Koechlin returns to the festival two years after her collaboration with Manav Kaul in Colour Blind, another play in which Death was personified in elegiac fashion, and it made visitations to Rabindranath Tagore.

While not at death’s door itself, the eminently watchable Seema Pahwa also stares mortality in the face in the Adhir Bhat-scripted Miss Cuckoo, the festival opener directed by Meera Khurana, which marks Akvarious’ 50th production. Playing a yesteryear star shipped off to an old-age home, Pahwa’s act is an ode to never-say-die feistiness and how every adversity can become an opportunity for a resurrection. Both the plays mask darker themes with levity.

Coming full circle from death to inchoate birth are plays that reflect upon the maternal instinct that is widely considered (and quite unfairly for some) to be an innate part of the feminine psyche. Yet, in the Marathi play Spandan, adapted from an Italian novel by Oriana Fallaci and directed by Vipul Vilas Mahagaonkar, Pradnya Shastri plays a young artist who exhibits conflicting emotions towards an unexpected pregnancy, spelt out in the form of a reflective letter she writes to her unborn child. In the press preview, where snatches of performance from each play were showcased, Shastri was able to bring a soft-hued gravitas to her pensiveness, while calling us to bear witness to a woman’s right over her own body without judgement or censure. Another production that appears to play off a woman’s refreshing lack of maternal instinct is Babot, directed in Gujarati by Pritesh Sodha, in which a childless woman is bequeathed a robot-child (Smit Ganatra) who she doesn’t warm to initially. Taking off from a canonical piece, The Adventures Of Pinocchio, in which a wooden marionette becomes a real boy only after an arduous rite of passage, Babot also has shades of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the melancholic Steven Spielberg film in which a humanoid develops an enduring childlike love for a human mother. Certainly, the emotional quotient always evident in Amatya Goradia’s writing has the potential to elevate Sodha’s easy-flowing sitcom-style staging.

Elsewhere, drawing from mythology, a contemporary Radha rears her head in Mitali Joshi’s adaptation of Dharamvir Bharati’s epic poem Kanupriya, even as Chanakya Vyas reimagines Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana in Gujarati, in which Padmini must once again choose between her lovers, whose heads have been transposed. In The Gentlemen’s Club*, Rachel D’Souza, Sheena Khalid and Puja Sarup take on male personas, such as that of the iconic 1960s filmstar Shammi Kapoor, and tease open the performance that masculinity—indeed, all gender—really is. Gagan Dev Riar’s Ishq Aaha reframes the eternal tragic romances of Punjab in a melodic narrative where Heer is now a go-getting modern woman of agency.

Ironically, in all of this, perhaps the only play that passes the Bechdel test, by which women characters should converse with one another, but not about men, is Ambu And Rajalakshmi, a story of 30-something cousin sisters written by Ramu Ramanathan and directed by Gurleen Judge.

It is clear that it is women’s stories that are now being excavated by contemporary theatremakers. Collectively, the plays map heterogeneous female experiences that are rich and textured. Eight directors and eight writers in this line-up are women, but they would be loath to tag themselves with the hyphenate “female-director-writer" or permutations thereof. However, these are fresh perspectives on display, that don’t often get aired on platforms like cinema or television and, hence, are all the more valuable as a result.

*The Gentlemen’s Club has been written by Vikram Phukan.

The NCPA Centrestage Festival 2015 is on from 27 November-7 December, timings vary, at National Centre for the Performing Arts, Nariman Point, NCPA Marg, Mumbai. For the festival schedule and tickets visit, www.ncpamumbai.com or in.bookmyshow.com

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