October 11, 2015
You might not recognise Poorna Jagannathan, but with supporting roles in HBO’s hotly anticipated ‘Criminal Justice’ and Season 3 of ‘House of Cards’, she’ll soon be a household name. First up is the Irish run of a play dear to her heart. Inspired by the infamous rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, ‘Nirbhaya’ features the real-life testimonies of Indian women, including Poorna, who have been the victim of sexual abuse. She talks to Caomhan Keane
When rising TV star, Poorna Jagannathan, recalls her Irish childhood, it plays out like a grainy, old home movie. The rides to school astride her sister’s bike; days spent rollerblading around Ballsbridge with her new friend, Deirdre, with whom she had become inseparable. There was her bed, which folded up into the wall, the regular trips to Galway with the family cat freaking out in the back seat beside her. And the embarrassment caused by her family’s cultural confusion, when they gave cash instead of candy to trick or treaters. There were even kindly nuns, if you’d believe it, who forgave her tardiness when her diplomat father – having discovered ‘the drink’ – sometimes couldn’t get out of the bed to take her and her sister to school on time.
“It was a beautiful period,” the Bollywood actress says, recalling the late ’70s and early ’80s when her diplomat father was assigned here for five years. “One of those childhoods that you get nostalgic for. I learnt English with an Irish accent and it didn’t fade for a long time after we left. It was still with me when I lived in Pakistan, Brazil and Argentina and my sister and I got the best marks in the whole school for speaking Gaelic. I still remember a few of the sayings.”
She pauses as if trying to recall one. But when she speaks again, her tone has changed. “Things went south pretty soon after that.”
Some time after she left this country, a friend of her parents sexually assaulted her. Then, throughout her teenage years in New Delhi, she was violated on a daily basis. Riding the bus to and from school, the hands of strange men slid up her skirt and gripped at her flesh as she tried, and sometimes failed, to get off at her stop. Such assaults are common for young girls in India, which is rated the worst G20 country in which to be a woman, where 53pc of children have suffered sexual abuse and where a new rape is reported every 20 minutes.
Her response, she believes, was the main symptom of the global epidemic of violence against women. She stayed silent. She didn’t speak up. She got on with her life. She’s spent her professional life trying to get out from under that thick veil of secrecy.
An early interest in journalism gave way to a love for acting. She made repeated appearances on ‘Law & Order’ as well as ‘Rescue Me’ and ‘Numb3rs’, but was best known for her work in India, on projects such as the dark comedy ‘Delhi Belly’ and ‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’, the third highest grossing Bollywood movie of all time. ‘Elle’, ‘Vogue’ and ‘Marie Claire’ proclaimed her one to watch. She was to have acted alongside James Gandolfini in his big return to HBO, ‘Criminal Justice’ and she was appointed by PETA as a brand ambassador, following in the footsteps of Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Pamela Anderson.
Then, on December 16, 2012, the silence she shared with millions of other Indian women was shattered. Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was returning from the cinema with a male friend, was viciously gang-raped by six men, including the driver of the bus, before they were mugged, stripped and thrown from the moving vehicle, which they then allegedly tried to back over Pandey, who died from her injuries 13 days later. The stop from which she and her friend had boarded the bus was directly opposite Poorna’s old house.
“I felt that I could have been her, on that bus, in so many ways and my mind was unable to process the information printed later in the press.”
She contacted the South African playwright Yael Farber, whose testimonial play about Apartheid, ‘Amajuba’, she had greatly admired. “I am a victim of sexual violence,” Poorna told her via Facebook, “who has been silent all these years. By keeping quiet, I consider myself a part of what happened on that bus. Come here. Women in India are ready to break their silence and speak. There is no turning back.”
“I knew when I contacted her there was a huge part of me that needed to confront my own truth,” Poorna, who paid for Farber to fly to Mumbai with her daughter, says. The playwright, in turn, quit her job as a lecturer at a Canadian university so she could lead workshops comprised mainly of survivors of sexual abuse and reassess not only what it means to be a woman in India, but the aftermath of the rape as well.
Word of Pandey’s bravery soon spread throughout India. How she fought back against her attackers, biting and marking them, even as they penetrated her with an iron rod, removing her intestines. Forbidden from publishing her real name due to Indian law, the media christened her Nirbhaya, meaning ‘fearless one’ and she inspired hundreds of thousands of Indian men and women to take to the streets in protest.
The resulting collaboration between Poorna and Yael shares both her name and her courage. It uses a dramatisation of the aforementioned rape as a catalyst for five of the seven performers to speak publically about the sexual abuse they themselves suffered, in a show that premiered to a flurry of five-star reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last August. From gang rape, to public molestation, one ‘dowry bride’ was covered in kerosene and set alight by her husband, while another was beaten by her father and suffered marital rape – an act still not considered a crime in India.
“On the first day of rehearsals, Yael asked people to raise hands if they had ever experienced sexual violence,” says Poorna. “Only two of us put our hands up. Later in the day, another girl, one who said she hadn’t experienced sexual violence, spoke about when she was walking with her father and some strange man put his hands up her skirt, into her vagina. Her father told her to forget about it, when she told him, and it was never spoken about again. She was 11.
“When Yael then asked if anyone had experienced something like that, everyone put their hands up. So these stories needed to be told, not only to break the silence around our sexual violence, but to spread an understanding about boundaries as well.”
Despite the rapturous response it received in the UK, Poorna still couldn’t secure official funding to take the play back to the Indian people.
“The moneymen I spoke to kept asking ‘what’s the point? The situation is not really that bad. The rapists aren’t going to see it.’ They wouldn’t even entertain the thought of funding us. The nature of the epidemic is that it is shrouded in silence.”
So she invested her own cash and crowd sourced the rest, to ensure the show was seen in New Delhi and Mumbai. The success of these performances have given her hope to one day tour the show around the villages and towns that make up the second most populated country in the world.
“The show is driven by our intense need to speak. To lift the veil,” says Poorna. “The abuse was day in, day out. It was sanctioned by society. People knew what was going on. It is an intense dream of ours to say ‘don’t look away’.”
No Q&A’s were scheduled when they first staged the piece, but the audience refused to leave when the show had ended, an experience repeated night after night. The cast now comes straight out into the foyer to talk to them directly after curtain call and in India, NGO’s were on hand to distribute information.
“We tell them our stories, the scars we have, how we found joy and where we have gone from there. And we listen, as the audiences tell us about their own experiences, many of whom have never spoken about it before. Not just women, but men as well.”
“My memories of Ireland are sentimental and warm,” Poorna adds, “but I know silence was a problem there too. When people come to see this play, they don’t think about it as something that is happening in India. They are thinking about how this has happened to them, or in their community, or in their country. We are waking up to the fact that misogyny and violence are everywhere. ‘Nirbhaya’ doesn’t just go where it’s invited. It goes where it is needed.”
‘Nirbhaya’ runs at The Pavilion Theatre from July 21 – August 2. Tickets are €25/€22 (concession), available from the Pavilion Box Office (01 231 2929) or online at paviliontheatre.ie