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Fearless: an actress dares to play Delhi gang-rape victim

Nirbhaya - a Play by Yael Farber is graphic and shocking, sometimes even numbing. HT interviewed Japjit Kaur, the actor who plays the role of the Delhi gang-rape victim. It's a role that haunts and hurts, she says.

art and culture Updated: Apr 01, 2014 21:42 IST
Tania Goklany

This didn't happen to Japjit Kaur. It happened to another woman: on a cold Delhi night four men raped her, beat her up and inserted an iron rod in her vagina. Kaur played the role of this rape victim. It's a role that haunts and hurts, she says.

Actor Japjit Kaur plays the role of the Delhi gang-rape victim in Nirbhaya - a Play by Yael Farber.


Nirbhaya--a Play by Yael Farber, was conceived by the South African playwright and director in the wake of the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old paramedic student, which had led to violent protests across India and made headlines across the world.

The play is graphic and shocking, sometimes even numbing. The statement it makes is brutal, just like the real-life incident it narrates. But then, this is not just another drama; the December 16 Delhi gang-rape was not just another incident.

Nirbhaya--a Play by Yael Farber kicks us in the guts. It is that honest.

The gang-rape victim's ordeal is recounted in unsparing detail but the actors use their roles to speak about the sexual violence they suffered themselves. One actor speaks about being gang-raped in Chicago; another actor talks of how her husband set her on fire and took their son away and two others recount being sexually abused as children.

The cast of Nirbhaya - a Play by Yael Farber.

In the course of an online interview to Hindustan Times, Japjit Kaur, who played Nirbhaya, said that this is the "most difficult role I have ever played".

As Nirbhaya, Japjit stands in one corner of the stage, leaning on a prop which symbolises the bus stop. She has been pushed to a corner but still she manages to remain standing -- she becomes a metaphor for courage (nirbhaya is Hindi for fearless), giving the other characters the push they need to break their silence.

"As Nirbhaya, I draw each woman back to their past as I hand them a piece of their history. They narrate their personal stories," Japjit says.

The role, she added, drained her physically and emotionally.

"During the the initial rehearsals, I remember I would stand in a corner leaning against a wall in Delhi while Yael Farber would work on each testimonial. That spot became Nirbhaya's corner, which materialised as the bus stop on stage. I would listen to everything very attentively but not speak for days during the rehearsals."

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The long periods of standing took its toll on the actor, leading to pain in the stomach. "Once, I had such severe pain in my stomach for three days in a row that I could barely get up. Though I have come a long way since then, I'm still in the learning process of finding the right balance."

Voice modulation and singing are an integral part of Japjit's role as she did not have a lot of dialogues: "I have tried to portray as much as I could of the victim's private experience through song and music. Nirbhaya sang as there was nothing left to say, words were of no use."

Preparing for Nirbhaya's role, too, wasn't easy.

"When we had begun rehearsals, Yael tried out many exercises with us to evoke certain emotions. For example, one very simple but extremely effective exercise was, while I stood in the middle of the rest of the cast, they tried to push me down to the ground while I had to resist. Emotionally, this was very challenging but it gave me an insight into Nirbhaya's world that night," Japjit says.

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Japjit was contacted by Yael through Meera Syal, a British actor and playwright. "Yael was looking for someone who could play the role of Nirbhaya from a position of truth and integrity. We will never know what she went through on that terrible night and we never pretend to understand her thoughts, or her."

The enactment of the rape scene was true to life, too real at times. On being asked if the intent of staging the rape scene so graphically was to shock the audience, Japjit said, "My job is to stay truthful."

She also recalled that that her parents could not face or speak to her for the "longest time" after they saw the play for the first time.

"I can imagine how deeply the audience must've been affected. Playing this role has been an extremely painful experience for me. I have seen what it has done to my family, I cannot even begin to imagine what her parents and loved ones go through every single day."

On being asked if she has developed a kinship with role as she has lived her character day after day, Japjit said, "I have lived a very small part of her life and unfortunately I will never know what she was like in person. Little that I know of her through the media and some research, all I can say is that I am in awe of her strength and courage. She was the rising new India, a sister, a daughter, a friend!"

At times, Japjit admitted, she found herself wondering "what Nirbhaya would've been doing if she was still around today."

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According to Jagpit, the play is an attempt to keep the protests against sexual violence going and to shatter the shame-based silence around such incidents. And she is playing her part in sending out the message.

"My job on stage is to stay truthful and to stay connected to the core message which is that enormous damage has been done to our society. Unfortunately, there is no accountability. It's time. The Delhi gang-rape is the reality," Japjit says.

The play premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 and then travelled to the Women of the World festival in Southbank London. It was first staged in India over a year later.

"We wanted to bring the play to Delhi because this is where it all happened. Delhi is where the streets rose in protest and demanded justice, demanded change. The wound is still fresh here; the response from the audience was incredible. Numerous people stepped forward and spoke of when they had been violated. They broke their silence. That is pretty much the message we're giving out," Japjit says.