“I am Reyhaneh Jabbari, 26 years old, with a hanging rope in front of my eyes. I want you to know what happened to me at the age of 19. I want you to know that I am not a murderer.”
That’s an excerpt from a video featuring an out-of-focus shot of four women reciting the text supported by a djembe. It’s the trailer to a play titled 07/07/07, and is based on Jabbari’s story, an Iranian woman who was hanged to death in October 2014. Her crime was stabbing a man who allegedly tried to rape her.
“I read the last letter she had written to her mother in December 2014. The thing about letters is that when you read it, it feels like it’s directed at you. I felt helpless and wanted to do something, but it was too late,” says Faezeh Jalali (37), who directed the play in December 2015.
For Jalali, the play was more than just an effort to take Jabbari’s story to a wider audience. It was also the beginning of writing stories that resonated with a social issue. Her latest production, Shikhandi — The Story of the In-betweens, based on the mythological transgender character of Shikhandi from the Mahabharata, will be staged in the city this weekend.
Stories that matter
Like in 07/07/07, Shikhandi, too, is a story that advocates eqiality and human rights. It also speaks against stereotypes about transgenders. For instance, in Shikhandi, Jalali highlights that the gender transformation of Shikhandi, was more a consequence of social norms, as opposed to it being her destiny. In the original epic, Shikhandi is born a woman but eventually transforms into a man to kill Bhishma during the Kurukshetra war.
In contrast, Jalali argues that Shikhandi’s confusion regarding sexual identity is a result of her gender-conflicted upbringing. As the first-born child to King Drupada, she was raised as a son — taught weaponry and state affairs. Her sister, Draupadi, was raised as a conventional princess, leading to Shikhandi questioning her own gender.
Jalali’s Shikhandi is also outspoken about her sexuality and gender transformation, as opposed to the original epic. Jalali says this bold interpretation of the Mahabharata comes from her feminist outlook. “If you are a person who strives for justice and equality, you are a feminist. That’s that. That’s what I like to say through my plays,” she says.
Back in the day
Jalali, who grew up in Mumbai, was a student at the JB Petit High School for Girls, Fort, and wanted to be an actor and storyteller since her childhood. “In first standard, we were asked to draw the person we wanted to become, and I drew an actor in a theatre space,” she says.
But, as a teenager, Jalali was quite confused. She wanted to pursue theatre along with dentistry. Her passion for theatre triumphed though, and she did a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Tennessee, USA. After returning to India in 2004, she did bit roles in films such as Mr Ya Miss (2005), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and acted in the TV show, Mahi Way (2010).
Despite all of that, Jalali’s dream of working in theatre persisted. After all, she grew up watching and acting in school plays directed by theatre artist Pearl Padamsee. In fact, Jalali is not a fan of films or television: “I find waiting in vanity vans excruciating. With theatre, once the process starts, you’re involved in it at all times — from rehearsals to previews to the opening,” she says.
Be there: Shikhandi – A Story of In-betweens will be staged on April 29 and 30
Where: Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point
Call: 6622 3737
Price: Rs 400 on bookmyshow.com