In Mahesh Dattani’s 30 Days in September, theatre actor Ira Dubey’s role as the young, attractive promiscuous Mala aptly captures the trauma of child sexual abuse (CSA) and its manifestation in adulthood. “None of Mala’s relationships lasted more than 30 days as she avoided getting too involved. The past does not stay in the past, at least in the case of CSA. The repercussions are felt throughout life. I have not experienced it, but can understand it at some level,” says Dubey, a resident of Nariman Point. “I could not afford to get lost in the role, wail and bawl, as I would lose track of my character. An actor should be able to take the audience along with them to discover a different world.”
The Bollywood bit
Recently released Bollywood film, Highway, loosely touches upon the sensitive topic of CSA when Veera (played by Alia Bhatt), speaks of how as a young child she was often forced to sit on her uncle’s lap, who in the guise of gifting goodies, sexually abused her. Back in 2001, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding highlighted the issue and in 2010, Onir’s I Am, told a heart-wrenching story of a boy who was sexually abused. “There are hardly any Bollywood films that highlight CSA. It is important for people to understand that CSA is not about trafficking. Considering the number of CSA cases in India, it is sad to note that it receives a step-brotherly treatment in Bollywood,” says Onir.
Theatre, however, seems to have highlighted CSA more than films—30 Days in September, Black Bird and Bitter Chocolate to name a few. These plays have become a reference point for people wishing to delve deeper into the complexities of CSA.
Through his plays, Arvind Gaur, director of 30 Days in September (Hindi), who also theatrically adapted Pinki Virani’s book, Bitter Chocolate, has often highlighted the need for change in people’s attitude towards CSA. “People in India tend to push such sensitive topics under the carpet. Often during discussions held after my plays, people accuse me of showcasing our country in bad light but then, there are also a few members of the audience, who walk up to me and share their stories of being abused as children,” he says.
According to Gaur, theatre and films help people understand the problem by spreading awareness and are a definite step forward in the search to collectively find solutions. “Through the medium of theatre, we hope to initiate some kind of action and bring about change,” quips Gaur whose street-play group, Dastak, has conducted 3,500 shows across India, often touching upon sensitive topics.
“In Bollywood, there is the danger of glamourising or sensationalising sensitive issues but I feel that a good film should make the audience carry home some pertinent questions,” explains Onir, who read books and interacted with NGOs across India before working on his film, I Am, in which most characters have been inspired from real life. “Post the release of the film, I was bombarded with emails from people who confessed that they had been abused but had never thought that they could discuss it openly.”
South Mumbai resident and actor Shernaz Patel’s performance in Black Bird, a play showcasing child sexual abuse with a complex love story looming in the background, was greatly lauded. But she admits that it was her performance as a mother who turns a blind eye to her sexually abused son’s plight due to her financial conditions in I Am, which had a greater impact. “Theatre caters to a niche audience while cinema has a wider reach. In theatre, it is all about survival. People turn to theatre to escape the realities of life. Find me an audience who will pay Rs 300 to step into a dark auditorium to watch a depressing movie,” points out Patel.