By Sairah Masud
A NEW play recounting the true story of women in India fighting violence has embarked on its UK tour, debuting at Leicester’s Curve theatre on Wednesday (27).
Based on a documentary account by Amana Fontanella-Khan, the Pink Sari Revolution follows the tale of Sampat Pal, leader of the notorious female vigilante group, the Gulabi Gang, as she fights for women’s rights in the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh state in north India.
The 400,000-strong women’s movement takes on matters such as domestic violence, rape, dowry- related murder and ‘honour’ killings in the Bundelkhand region. They are easily recognised by their distinctive pink saris (gulab in Hindi means pink).
Fontanella-Khan dedicated three years to reporting on the ‘pink gang’, watching them first-hand confronting corrupt bureaucrats, challenging caste-based prejudice and helping women who are victims of abuse.
Director Suba Das first became aware of the book upon a friend’s recommendation and was instantly drawn to the gang’s story. He approached Fontanella-Khan about adapting her account into a play.
He told Eastern Eye: “When we started the process, Donald Trump became the president of America. There was a moment earlier this year where millions of women were marching in pink in cities all over the world to protest this misogynist running the free world and to me that was a very powerful and terrifying moment. I realised that Sampat Pal had been marching in pink for years before the other marches were taking place.”
Following the footsteps of Khan, Das and choreographer Aakash Odedra travelled to Bundelkhand, where they spent time with Sampat and the gang. Das and Odedra said they wanted to avoid stereotypes and keep the tale as realistic as possible.
“We wanted to focus on the importance of the physical and getting the (all-British) cast to reflect on that. We were able to observe everything from how the group interacts with each other to how they sit down, eat, hold their bodies and deal with the heat and dust of the land.”
Getting up close and personal with Sampat Pal proved invaluable for Odedra, who said he discovered parallels with himself.
“(The cast) always laugh because I feel like Sampat is a real part of me as she is so theatrical herself. She’s had a massive effect on me and I feel like I’ve known her for a few lifetimes. When I move, I like to move the way she would – it’s almost as if I’m peeping through her eyes.”
Das revealed how four members of the cast were recruited after personally writing to him, expressing their interest in being involved in the production.
“I knew there was engagement already going into it. They go home from rehearsals and watch Sampat’s documentaries; they’re immersing themselves in their roles and it makes our job a delight because they’re giving us a lot of suggestions.”
Das decided to enlist British actors, emphasising his interest in casting performers who would do the roles justice as opposed to making a poor impersonation.
“It became a very short list in terms of actors who I felt could take on [the role] because they needed to have experience of India and really get what it means to be in some of those communities.”
Pal operates in lawless regions of India in the grip of what is described as a ‘rape crisis’, with over 30,000 sexual assaults a year.
Das said it was important to expose the injustices facing women – which he acknowledges are not exclusive to India – to a new audience.
“We hear about everyday sexism – the world we live in has a fundamental gender problem and this is a great opportunity to dissect that.
“We’re doing a huge amount of outreach to young people in Leicester to encourage them to engage with the team. Even if it makes just one person reflect upon the issue, that’s great.”
One of the director’s challenges was adapting real-life stories to the stage while simultaneously holding the audience’s interest. He revealed how in the initial stages, the idea of having a choreographed production with a stage chorus and big sequences was discarded for a more personal and visceral storytelling route.
“What happens a lot in British theatre is the ‘them versus us’ narrative. It was important for me to not present the work as an exhibit; as if it’s happening ‘over there’. I didn’t want to be patronising; the play is about common humanity and how it reaches out to an audience here and everywhere.”
Odedra said his experience of growing up in Indian villages helped bring the artistic vision to life.
“[We want] something that resonates with the people we’re talking about. Part of my role is to observe the actors and figure out how I can contribute to that by giving it a sense of lyricism and poetry at times.”
Das said his time at the Theatre Royal Stratford East helped him tell engaging, political stories in unusual ways.
“Pink Sari Revolution has humour in it – if you meet Sampat, she is hilarious. As a theatre maker, I wanted the show to be theatrically bold and not just a documentary on stage. I wanted it to have unexpected possibilities; to be lyrical at times and also visually stunning,” he said
It’s not the first time Das and Odedra have collaborated. Earlier this year, the pair worked on the large-scale production of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s opera, Sukanya.
“We get on very well and I think we just have very similar taste, which is a useful thing,” said Das of his collaboration with Odedra.
It’s clear the respect is mutual. During rehearsals, Odedra would often articulate Das’ thoughts without him needing to utter a word.
“He would be looking at me and say ‘you’ve read my mind’. We’re on the same wavelength and I feel really connected to the issues Suba speaks about. So there is a really healthy relationship in terms of the vision he has and how I can bring little bits of his vision to life,” said Odedra.
Das dreams of creating ‘an enormous Bollywood musical’ one day and reflecting on the possibility of working with the director in future, Odedra said: “If the opportunity comes along and something feels right, of course. Every time I do collaborate with him, I feel there’s more of an eased atmosphere so the possibilities are quite high in the future.”
Pink Sari Revolution is in theatres nationwide until November 11.