Women Speaking out Give Others Courage: Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal
This edition of ‘Bombaywaali‘ had none other than actor and social activist extraordinaire, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal come in and share her experiences with acting, bringing about social change and adapting ‘The Vagina Monologues’. A play exploring every facet of what it means to be a woman, and gives a voice to that shared experience. She was in conversation with Author and SheThePeople.TV Ideas editor, Kiran Manral.
On her relationship with stage and return to acting.
Kotwal tells us that she knew she was meant to work in this arena. “Once you see the audience and you taste blood for the first time, you never want to do anything else. The reaction is so phenomenal, I would think to myself, if I could die in this minute, and I would be so happy”.
Bringing The Vagina Monologues to India
Kotwal confesses, that it was never her idea to bring the show here and she didn’t think the government would “go for it”. It was on her son’s insistence that she attended the show in America. “In America, I saw the play with fifteen hundred people and I realized it should be done here. Then it took me a year and a half to get the rights to the play. I was one of the only people who actually went out of the way to get the rights to the play.”
“In America, I saw the play with fifteen hundred people and I realized it should be done here. Then it took me a year and a half to get the rights to the play. I was one of the only people who actually went out of the way to get the rights to the play.”
She further explains her motivation to pursue The Vagina Monologues in India as “I think this play was written with such intent and purity”. While she didn’t think the government would support a play of this nature she found herself in a conversation with a woman on the censor board who thought the play was a fantastic idea. “Within a month it got approved by the censor board—with no cuts— and no deletions!”
The idea was that we did not face any objections from the government but it was certain groups of people and theatre owners who objected was strange.
She further discusses the play’s widespread success and, also, the irony in its rejection from certain groups. “I thought we’d do five shows in South Bombay and five shows at Prithvi, the response at Prithvi was phenomenal. The idea was that we did not face any objections from the government but it was certain groups of people and theatre owners who objected was strange. The NCPA refused to carry our show after the board of trustees changed. All Christian establishments such as colleges wouldn’t allow the play at their institutions but would pursue Eve Ensler to speak at their programs when she was in town. This is the irony of India, you don’t allow the play but want the playwright to speak at your schools.”
Kiran asks Mahabanoo about the incidents she had experienced during the staging and how TVM impacted viewers. Kotwal tells us “We got a grant from abroad, to perform it here in Hindi, we did it for the women in Dharavi Slums. We made an event out of it, hosted them well with refreshments and such. They had maybe been to a cinema before but never to a play. After we did the play for them we asked them for their reactions. The amount we learned from those shows was transforming. Even the men from the basti came and now teach other men in their communities against violence to women”.
“A woman came to give me a hug, she showed a picture of her Dolly Thakore and me, and the woman ended a three-year abusive relationship with a man after watching the play and took the picture to commemorate the moment.”
She shares, “a woman came to give me a hug, she showed a pic of her Dolly Thakore and me, and the woman ended a three-year abusive relationship with a man after watching the play and took the picture to commemorate the moment.” She even had women coming up to her to share their experiences with abuse, they told her “I am a victim of child abuse but this play has cleansed my soul”.
On the Current state of affairs
On asking Kotwal what can be done about this state of affairs she responds “What really bothers me is that the ‘biggies’ in the industry, have stayed silent on the issue. Someone like Amitabh Bachchan says nothing even though they can make a difference. I don’t know why the name of girls should not be taken because they have done nothing wrong. That’s another form of misogyny when women, mothers also feel that the daughter’s name shouldn’t be named as it brings shame to the family—for the actions of others.”
“I think everybody needs to be educated. I think girls need to and especially their mothers- who need to not to hold these girls back. If one thinks wearing jeans will make women manly, or transgender and that men with STI’s who have sex with virgins will get cured. It is all learned patriarchy and misogyny.”
We ask her how we can encourage conversation among women of their shared experience and how can we get them to talk about it? She tells us that “Silence= death Instead of kitties, women need to talk about it. We need to form groups we talk about everything. I advise young people to go out there talk to the women in the Bastis, learn what is going on as well”.
What makes her a ‘Bombaywaali’
“I insist on calling it Bombay even now, I write it everywhere too! but apart from that, I have tried to make a mark in this city by being involved and reaching out to help people who are less privileged than us.”
Mahabanoo Kotwal exemplifies social change through the art form. She has created a platform for women to take up space and enjoy an unfettered expression to create a community of collective experiences. It shows us that the first step to tackling a problem as deeply rooted in misogyny and violence is to talk about it and create a community of support.
Akansha is an intern with SheThePeople.TV