Categories: Longform

Inside the Culture of Abuse in Indian Theatre: Everything Changed For Me When My Co-Actor Slapped Me and My Director Bruised Me

By Nandini Krishnan

A scene from The Woman Who Killed a Buffalo. Photo courtesy Balakrishnan Venkataraman

Two years ago, I decided I would stop acting in plays until I had found the ovaries to speak out about an incident that shocked, traumatised, and enraged me.

In 2014, a co-actor slapped me as a scene was being choreographed. There was no slap in the script. I was acting in a play I had written, which had been commissioned and was being staged in Chennai by one of India’s oldest theatre groups. The actor claimed he had got “carried away”. The director supported him, and made me feel guilty for objecting. At the next rehearsal, the same actor bruised my arms. The rehearsal after that, the director decided to demonstrate a strangling scene to the actor. I left with a headache. My mother, who is a doctor, found a bruise on my neck where the director and actor had pressed their hands. It was close to my carotid artery.

Nandini Krishnan. Photo by Vinay Aravind.

The next day, I told the director to choose between me and my co-actor.

There had already been some friction between me and the director. He had initially asked me to adapt an American paperback for the stage. When I realised that the rights had not been acquired, I understood he wanted me to plagiarise it. I refused, but offered to write an original play that retained only the core theme – post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in war veterans. I researched PTSD in the Indian context, and wrote the play. Yet, the director claimed, in interviews leading up to the production and during the staging itself, that he had “given” me the story.

Things took a turn for the worse when I refused to work with the actor. The latter was asked to leave, but the reason for his exit was hushed up. The director spent the following months trying to belittle me, and my involvement in the play. He insisted on changes in the script and called it “director’s prerogative” — these included a misogynistic joke about a war widow. My name was not on the DVD that was made of our production.

In late 2015, when the director was interviewed by a paper ahead of another venture, he credited the authors of the other plays he had directed, but referred to mine as “his” play. When I checked with the reporter, she told me he had said I had “tweaked” his story for the stage.

My treatment during the production had confused and depressed me. The slow erasure of my name from my play, the undermining of my claim to its authorship, left me livid.

A scene from Honour. Photo courtesy Nandini Krishnan

There are numerous incidents of women being intimidated or patronised or bullied or dismissed, in Hollywood as much as in local theatre. I have heard award-winning women theatre makers dismissed as “nose-in-the-air upstart”, “arrogant bitch”, and “schizo”.

Months after the production ended, I was furious with the director and actor, but mostly with myself. Why had I been silent so long? Was it disinclination for unpleasantness? Or had I been made to feel guilty for disrupting the production by refusing to face violence from a bad co-actor? Was it my fault that this ploy had worked?

The same ploy has worked on women who are far more famous and powerful than I. Jennifer Lawrence said female actors worry about seeming “difficult” or “spoiled” or “hysterical”, labels that smack of linguistic patriarchy. In the infamous leaked Sony emails, recordproducer Scott Rudin referred to Angelina Jolie as a “minimally talented spoiled brat” and producer Megan Ellison, a three-time Oscar nominee, as a “bipolar 28-year-old lunatic”, as if her age were an insult.

Physical violence is common in cinema too, and not just on screen — acclaimed Tamil director P Bharathiraja has a reputation for verbally, and sometimes physically, abusing female actors; director Sami was banned from filmmaking for a year for slapping and swearing at a female actor; director Bala was involved in a Twitter row after a ‘reality teaser’ that showed him caning and kicking his actors was uploaded on YouTube; director Teja claims he has the right to slap anyone for the sake of his film; actor Priyanka was hospitalised with severe ear trauma in 2014, after actor-director Kalanjiyam slapped her.

Hell, Meryl Streep was slapped by Dustin Hoffman to elicit genuine emotion during the filming of Kramer vs Kramer. William Friedkin boasted of slapping an actor during the filming of The Exorcist, to make him cry, and said the actor had later thanked him for it. He even cited “other great directors” such as John Ford and George Stevens as having led by example with the slap-happiness.

None of these men has shown remorse; in fact, their actions and their actors’ acquiescence are portrayed as evidence of dedication to the art.

If Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence were mistreated, I wondered how many women theatre makers in India had felt victimised by gender discrimination. I was surprised by the number who said they had faced actual violence, not just belittlement and passive aggression. It also surprised me how few were willing to talk about it without anonymity.

Method Acting

A scene from Free Outgoing. Photo by John Lauener.

“The thing is,” says an actor in her thirties, who has worked in Chennai and is now based in Mumbai, “When you’re part of the industry, you don’t want to create a ‘scene’ at rehearsal. If you do, you’re made to feel you’re not talented or dedicated or a team player…not professional.”

She recounted an incident where an older actor moved closer than necessary to her during a scene where his character had to confront hers with a series of home truths. “In the climax, this man is supposed to intimidate, dominate, and shame me. But I don’t see why his face has to be right in mine. At rehearsal, this guy’s spitting at me, and once he gripped my shoulders and shook me. We happened to have a female director, and I told her I wasn’t comfortable. She spoke to him, and he put on a terrible show in one rehearsal, and then complained that I wasn’t being cooperative. Then, some of these old fogeys sat down and told me about some play they had done back in the mediaeval times when they were young — four or five of them were circling around this one woman and spitting and snarling at her. They went on about how you don’t find actresses like that. I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t find actresses like that. You’ve got an award-winning actor like Michael Fassbender going on about how he fainted during a rape scene, and how he hugged the actress and cried after; and then you have all these amateurs delighting in violence, and going on about method acting and shit.”

Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyongo in 12 Years a Slave

On the day the actor slapped me, I said no actor could get “carried away” when we didn’t know our lines, when we were blocking the scene in fragments, when we were wearing rags and rehearsing in a stuffy school room. But the director dismissed my protests, saying his actions were “understandable”, because the actor had limited stage experience; he apparently acts in mythological serials and has done bit roles in Hindi and Tamil movies.

I was disturbed by both the incident and the setting. I had been on my back, pinned against the edge of a sofa, with my face open to a slap, and unable to defend myself. It was a classic rape set piece. It was an ugly incident even without taking gender into consideration. When one brings in gender, it acquires another dimension. When I articulated this, I was accused of “overreacting”.

When I brought up the bruising, the director suggested I wear “full sleeves”. That day, the actor yanked my hair without warning. When I objected, he said my “refusal to cooperate” was frustrating.

I showed him how he could grip me without hurting me, but he said, “It doesn’t look authentic enough.”

“I can look scared.”

“This isn’t about you alone,” the director said, “Both hands should clap. Some actors may need to use a little bit of aggression in order to look angry. I’ve manhandled women, I’ve thrown them around stage, over the decades. They didn’t have a problem with that.”

“And I have on screen,” the actor chimed in, “No one has objected.”

I was told I would have to “be a little more accommodating” and not “be a delicate darling”.

I tried to carry on with rehearsals, but could not even look at my script without feeling scared and disheartened. I was terrified of what the actor might decide to do on stage during the show, even if he were to hold back during the rehearsals. I couldn’t learn my lines. I couldn’t sleep. I second-guessed myself. Was this all in my head? Yet, what justification could there be for someone taking liberties with my body?

Finally, a friend’s words hit home – “If you felt uncomfortable, a line was crossed.”

I decided to leave the production. The director insisted on a sit-down with the actor. The conversation left me numb.

The director asked me why I must “bring this up suddenly”. My delayed reaction had put the validity of my sentiment in question. I tried explaining that one can’t immediately confront a situation for which one is unprepared. One doesn’t want to be hasty; one has to be sure one isn’t misinterpreting things. And yet, every time a woman is harassed, physically, emotionally, or sexually, it comes up – If it is true, what took you so long?

The actor called it a “difference of opinion”, and said he would “apologise for the slap and nothing else, because according to me, some amount of violence is necessary.” I pointed out that the first rule of theatre is that one does not take a co-actor by surprise. He said, “I’ve apologised for the slap, and am willing to apologise a thousand times more”; the director said, “The least you can do is be gracious and accept the apology.” The actor said he had tried his best, but saw no point in continuing after “her absolutely cold reaction to my repeated apologies.” And then, he began to cry. The director comforted him, as I sat feeling guilty.

Eventually, the director said that he would ideally have liked for neither of us to leave. But my leaving was “absolutely not acceptable” to him; the actor’s leaving was “reluctantly acceptable”.

Power Play

Director Neelam Mansingh with actors during rehearsal. Photo courtesy Neelam Mansingh

The fact is that the director should have taken the actor to task when the violence was first exercised; failing that, he should have asked him to leave the production before my ultimatum. Instead, he told the rest of the cast that the actor had to leave because of a schedule conflict.

Worse, after a replacement had been found and rehearsals were going well, the director introduced a veteran actor as someone whom he had romanced often on stage, and then turning to me, said, “You know, you made such a fuss? I’ve slapped her on stage so many times, and she never said a word.”

So there it was — a deviously public remark that hinted I was a selfish prima donna, unwilling to experiment, unwilling to allow a co-actor to indulge in his idea of improvisation.

A veteran female actor who asked not to be identified believes men of a certain socioeconomic class, who are not likely to have experienced, witnessed, or perpetrated violence in real life, seem to enjoy inflicting it on stage.

“They call it method acting, and that lends it legitimacy. Very few women would have so little to lose that they can call it out. Best case scenario, you’ll be mocked; worst case scenario, people will call you a drama queen and a liar, and blacklist you.”

The idea of ‘method acting’ is terribly misunderstood by those who have not studied drama. It is about understanding the character’s inner life, saying the lines as the character would have, laughing as the character would have, crying when the character would have. It is not the right to violence. It is not the right to appropriate a co-actor’s body.

What happened to me was assault. It horrifies and infuriates me that, under the pretext of ‘method acting’ and ‘professionalism’, some people can give vent to sadomasochistic impulses, and demand that its recipients submit to the savagery.

Professionalism in Indian theatre is a joke. There are no stunt directors to choreograph violent scenes. There are no contracts. Hell, there are no salaries. In this unsafe, unmonitored work environment, we’re expected to take unwarranted slaps. That is not professional. That is victimisation.

In my case, the director’s “taking my side” translated into quid pro quo for taking liberties with my script.

On the last day of the show, when the director did not know I was within earshot, he told someone in the cast, “You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to clean up Nandini’s script.” I called out, “I can hear you.” After an awkward pause, he called back, “Heyyyy! Uh, it was meant for you to hear. I was joking. Got you, didn’t I? So, did you watch the match yesterday?”

As people congratulated me on the success of my play, or approached me with doubts about loose ends in the script, I found myself putting on a performance in real life. I was exhausted. How could I explain that the script that was staged was drastically different from the one I wrote? How could I explain that that barely bothered me because I had sunk into depression and insomnia, spurred by a sense of impotence?

Welcome to the Boys’ Club

A scene from a production by Theatre Nisha. Photo courtesy Balakrishnan Venkataraman

Balakrishnan Venkataraman, who graduated from National School of Drama two decades ago and has since worked in Hindi, English, and Tamil theatre, now heads Theatre Nisha, a Chennai-based ensemble. He says ruses are often used to allow more intimacy than necessary between men and women in theatre, and those who back away are considered squeamish, wanting in some essential theatre skill. “There are theatre games which are played in order to feel up or grope. Female actors are made to stay back to practise intimate scenes. These are ways in which theatre is exploited [by those in authority].”

An actor in her forties, who has worked in both Tamil and English theatre in Chennai, adds, “So often, you hear men boast about scenes of domination — coming closer than necessary, pinning down a female actor and so on — and one cannot help but feel there is a sexual component to that power-violence dynamic.”

Most women have undergone some kind of sexual harassment, and men are rarely sensitive to the fact that delighting over a violent scene can become a trigger. The female actor relives the helplessness, the trauma, the shame of having done nothing to stop it.

It gets worse behind the women’s backs, Balakrishnan says. He has observed both sexual and non-sexual innuendo, which is degrading to women, and smacks of sexism.

A male actor, who has worked in Bangalore and Mumbai, says: “See, I’m discounting the conversations about

who’s hot and who’s not, because I don’t think of those as sexist. I’m sure people of [compatible sexual orientation] discuss each other that way. But then, when someone is spoken of as a ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’ or ‘having a stick up her arse’, it is gender-specific. Among older theatre actors, you sense patronising behaviour in their interactions with women, especially younger women.”

Renowned theatre director Neelam Mansingh points out that the problem is deeper, ingrained even in language. “I think the word ‘director’ does tend to have a male resonance, and in my time, it was the kind of profession where men became directors and women became actors,” she says, “So it took much longer to discover a space for yourself within which you could work — whether it had to do with grants or funding for shows or credibility, there were challenges of a different kind. I think egalitarianism is a myth. Parity amongst the genders, whether in theatre or in life, is a subjective uncertainty.”

Chennai-based playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar, whose works have been staged by The Royal Court, London, and performed in the UK, US, Europe, and India, recounts an incident that illustrates this. “There was this really well-known playwright who patted my head like he would a puppy when I introduced myself as a playwright too. A male playwright friend who had come along with me didn’t get the same treatment. Theatre is in many ways still a boys’ club.”

Meera Sitaraman, a playwright, actor, and stage manager based in Chennai, says women are taken more lightly than men in technical fields— lighting, sound, and stage management. Technical staff at auditoriums can be laidback and patronising when they have to work with a woman, she says.

It could be the case that younger women, who are assumed to be inexperienced and therefore incompetent, receive less respect than long-time directors. Prasanna Ramaswamy, who has worked in Tamil theatre for more than 30 years, feels technical and stage personnel “don’t take [women] seriously” when one travels to the North, but she faces no problems in the South.

I asked Neelam about her experience in directing actors, especially older male actors, when she was starting out. “Initially, it was always difficult for a man to be able to cross over, in his own mind, to take what he sees as instructions from a woman,” she says, “So there is that thing you’ve to negotiate with. In the last 30 years, one has been able to take away the gap. Yet, I think somewhere that creates a kind of ghettoisation.”

Where Are the Women?

A scene from Re:play. Photo courtesy Aruna Ganesh Ram

South African actor and director Sara Matchett, who teaches theatre at the University of Cape Town and runs her own theatre company Mothertongue, is questioning the absence of women in professional theatre across the globe. She devises plays around women-centric themes. But she points out that women’s plays are seen as a genre in themselves is evidence of an imbalance.

It is a familiar refrain that there are not many strong female characters in plays, and that is one of the key reasons it remains a male-dominated field. This often turns into a chicken-or-egg question. Are scripts without female leads being chosen because they are being picked by male directors? Or are they simply not being written?

Aruna Ganesh Ram, who runs the group Visual Respiration in Bangalore, says, “I do think that even in contemporary writing, the number of plots with a female protagonist is much less [than those with male leads], whether in musicals or experimental work. And when you take classics, this becomes even more true.”

In the Indian milieu, the paucity of female characters corresponds to the fact that there are few women playwrights who are staged in India. When we speak of Indian theatre, the big four — Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, and Badal Sircar — are men.

Neelam says you can count the number of women playwrights on your fingers — Tripurari Sharma, Nadira Babbar, adaptations of work by Mahasweta Devi — for which the reason may have been, early on, that women were discouraged from inhabiting public spaces. A fallout is that there were very few strong female characters; fewer were believable. “When women came into theatre as directors, most of the plays were written by men, and it was like men saw women,” says Neelam. “Balwant Gargi was pretty radical at the time. But his affiliations were with the male. So he treated a character, and treated an understanding of desire, as the male sees it. So there was a kind of fetishisation of the gaze.” So, most women directors began to create their own plays, collaborating with actors and musicians.

Balakrishnan says he is still trying to figure out why there is no canonical woman playwright — “Were women writers not as prolific as their male counterparts, and were their plays not as good? Or was it a boys’ club at work, because there were more male directors and producers than women? I don’t know.”

When everyone is aware of the importance of women’s presence in theatre, why is it so sparse? Anupama says, “Men by and large tend to pick up plays written by men and there are just not enough female directors around. Which means there are fewer opportunities for women playwrights of being staged. This circle needs to be broken urgently.”

Bangalore-based writer and director Swar Thounaojam recently spoke about the absence of women from arts committees, and pointed out that most people – including women – had not even noticed this. When the demand for more women in representative committees and in theatre festivals is voiced, the counter-attack – usually led by the question, “So you want slots reserved for women?” – makes it feel like an act of charity. The Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, one of the most-anticipated annual contests in the country, has awarded the Best Original Script to women writers on several occasions. But these productions are often relegated to one-off showings every now and again.

Mumbai-based actor-director Faezeh Jalali speaks of the subtle ways in which gynocentricity is cast aside. She feels gender parity exists among actors in theatre, as well as independent and alternate cinema, but this is not the case in mainstream cinema. Worse, she adds, “I don’t do much cinema but whenever it’s a ‘woman oriented film’ one is told the budget is very little.  And there definitely aren’t enough women directors.”

Meera feels women playwrights are forced to shoulder the burden of an absent lineage. “As a woman, I am held way more responsible for what I write than men. Men who write about issues considered feminine are labelled sensitive and women who write [on] unwomanly [subjects] are considered vulgar. It’s stifling to write a play when every dialogue is considered under the lens of political statements. If I don’t adhere to the commonly accepted notion of feminism, I am either not considered a feminist, which I believe most humans are in their own ways, or not considered a responsible playwright, which I find amusing because I am not a lawmaker, only a storyteller. For me, a script isn’t meant to be a brochure on good living or world healing, it’s a story and a conflict that appeals to me.”

But Prasanna says she has never witnessed women being patronised or victimised by men. In fact, she takes that a step further. “On the contrary, men are generally reminded, a bit harshly about their own inadequacies when they confront strong women, women creators. Of course I have men colleagues like Pralayan whose work I respect so much, who always look at women’s work with serious interest and discuss it.”

Vernacular vs. English Theatre

Prasanna Ramaswamy at rehearsal for Lotus Leaves, Water Words. Photo by Mohan Das Vadakara

It may have something to do with the fact that Prasanna has worked in vernacular theatre, which one might expect to be a more conservative space than English theatre, but is not quite so. A vernacular theatre worker may have grown up in a household with gendered notions, sheltered from Western ideas, but those who enter theatre from that background tend to discard those notions.Gender activist, theatre maker, and professor Mangai Arasu agrees. “English theatre has people from the establishment, who want to maintain status quo. Whereas vernacular theatre has people who want to break it. Doing theatre in any other language is actually to make a point, to question a lot of contemporary practice, and I think that’s why it’s more progressive.”

Neelampoints out that vernacular theatre groups comprise politically aware individuals, who tend to work together for decades.

Prasanna takes strong exception to the divides in theatre, where English language theatre makers are favoured to conduct workshops or participate in judging panels and arts committees. “This hegemonic attitude turns the lens to the city bred, English speaking, teaching-positioned, institution trained, visible ones and not to the ones who are doing quiet and intense work.”

Is it the case that the lack of funding for vernacular theatre and the absence of vernacular theatre makers from committees presents a skewed, anglo-centric picture of theatre in India? Is theatre a safe place for women at the grassroots level?

Balakrishnan does not believe vernacular theatre is less biased against women. “A very famous Tamil theatre group has had a director who abused women in the group at his whim. The same story has played out in Hindi theatre. Human behaviour does not change by political affiliations.”

Can One Leave Gender Behind?

When one believes oneself to be independent and political, one does not want to see oneself as a victim.

And so, there are things we theatre workers, especially women theatre workers, don’t talk about — unsolicited, unwelcome, unwarranted, and discomfiting personal remarks on our clothes, our anatomy, our physiognomy; a hug that is too close, a kiss on the cheek that drifts towards the ear, an approach that borders on sexual harassment but can be passed off as friendliness.

Mangai smiles when I ask about it. “When I was younger, I remember thinking that even when you socialise, you’re a sexed body. Somehow, practising theatre did bring in a lot of questions about body and sexuality and things like that. But after a point, I think I just changed my view, I just stopped worrying about it.”

Sara Matchett theorises that the challenges women face in theatre is what makes their work “more challenging and provocative on aesthetic as well as content fronts, than the work of male practitioners.” She adds, “The women I have engaged with and whose work I have experienced range in age as well as form and purpose—the pioneering work Sanjna Kapoor has done with youth in India, Dr Anuradha Kapur’s innovation as a pedagogue as well as director, Maya Rao’s solo work as well as her pioneering work in applied theatre pedagogy, Veenapani Chawla’s innovative methods of actor training and her research in to hybrid forms, to the solo work of young women performers such as Nimmy Raphel and Kalyanee Mulay.”

The Road Ahead

A lot has been said about the need for women in positions of authority. However, Mangai points out that even in such cases, it does not change gender equations drastically. Women have indeed been directors of several theatre groups, and even institutions such as National School of Drama and National Centre for thePerforming Arts. “But structurally — since everything else is patriarchal — I think it’s too much to expect theatre alone to be an oasis,” she says, “they may not be able to bring about a change in mindset.”

A solution may not be imminent. But the silence needs to be broken.

When I first considered writing this article, I wondered whether this was a personal issue that I was blowing out of proportion, one that has no place on a public forum.

But, when theatre companies are run by people who can casually boast about having been violent to women, when an actor’s intensity and dedication are measured by his lack of control over his actions, what seems personal becomes institutional.

Speaking to other women theatre makers convinced me that theatre remains a boys’ club, and that abuse — subtle, insidious, or overt — is endemic to theatre in this country.

I have kept my commitment with the play. But I will not keep my peace. I will not be vilified for choosing to protest against a violation of my rights. I will not be told I must feel good about being abused for love of theatre. I cannot live with myself as an actor, a writer, a journalist, and a woman if I stay silent. Because silence is misconstrued as consent, and I do not consent.

Nandini Krishnan is a playwright, stage actor, and writer based in Chennai.

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