Nirbhaya: a play that challenges apathy about rape

A play that deals with sexual violence against the backdrop of the Delhi bus rape is not an easy watch

In Nirbhaya, five Indian women recount their stories of sexual violence

In Nirbhaya, five Indian women recount their stories of sexual violence


It started with a late-night conversation between two women outraged at the rape that took place on a Delhi bus in 2012. From her home in Mumbai, actor and producer Poorna Jagannathan called writer and director Yäel Farber in Montreal.

The two women had never met – they were friends on Facebook – but their mutual outrage at what had happened compelled them to find some way of taking action.

“Sexual violence is like a war on certain sections of the population,” says Farber. “It’s an epidemic, a global one, enabled by a level of apathy that most of us have. We are complicit by our silence when we see things that we know are not right.”

In the course of their exchange, Jagannathan felt moved to speak about her experience of abuse, which she had kept secret from all but her husband and her closest friends.

“She had survived sexual violence from childhood, she had carried it through her life, and suddenly she saw the long sweep of what it meant to keep that silence,” says Farber.

After many trips, talks and meetings and a crowd-funding campaign that raised more than €37,000, the final result of this conversation was Nirbhaya: a piece of testimonial theatre that has had a profound impact on audiences in Edinburgh, London and India.


Stories of sexual violence

Five Indian women, including Jagannathan, recount their stories of sexual violence against the backdrop of the Delhi bus rape. “People usually watch theatre,” says Jagannathan. “Nirbhaya gives you, for the first time, the opportunity to actually witness something. And when you witness something, it galvanises you into action.


“I’ve seen a lot of plays which call for social change and they haven’t done anything: sometimes you feel preached to, or they’re word-heavy, too intellectual. But I think the power of Nirbhaya lies in its ability to move people from watcher to witness. It leaves an indelible mark.”

In writing Nirbhaya, Farber had to tread a difficult course, avoiding sensationalising the stories but not sanitising them either. Nor did she want it to appear that India was being singled out as the locus of this worldwide “epidemic”.

“We didn’t want to vilify one country as a place-holder, which would be both dangerous and unfair. We’re coming to Ireland now, and that means a great deal to us [both women have Irish connections; Jagannathan lived here between the ages of five and eight, when her diplomat father worked at the Indian embassy], but just like any other country, Ireland has its own issues with sexual violence.”


A sacred space

One of the unusual aspects of the show, aside from the harrowing nature of the content, is the way the cast come out to speak to the audience afterwards. “That’s integral, because it’s a sacred space: you’ve walked into an experience that is sacred, shared by audience members and performers,” says Jagannathan. “It reveals the deepest and darkest parts of our lives. Many people are still in touch with the person who was sitting next to them on the night they saw Nirbhaya.”

Nobody can deny the emotional impact of Nirbhaya, but isn’t there a risk that Farber and Jagannathan are preaching to the converted, engaging with people who already repudiate sexual violence of any kind, rather than calling perpetrators to account? “It’s about holding all of us accountable,” says Jagannathan.

“My biggest insight after the Delhi rape was that I myself am a perpetrator, because I have kept silent. Our apathy keeps the problem from being real. It contributes to a culture of unaccountability.”

“Our mandate is not to try to change people who perpetrate,” adds Farber. “It’s to question the premise of what is acceptable to us, ourselves. That’s how revolutions begin, quietly and within the individual.”

“It’s a hard watch,” admits Jagannathan. “There have been a couple of instances where audience members have fainted, or have had difficulty breathing: physical reactions, you know. It’s not a wonderful night out at the theatre – it’s a difficult night – but it’s one that people will not forget. They think they are watching a play about someone else, but then they realise that they are watching a play about themselves.”

Nirbhaya is at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, from July 21 until August 2

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