Actress Poorna Jagannathan on Why ‘Nirbhaya’ Resonates With People From Across the World

by Keertana Sastry 

Powerful, heartbreaking, honest, necessary. These four words perfectly describe Yael Farber’s most affecting work to date, Nirbhaya. Inspired by the 2012 horrific gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi, the woman whose nickname became Nirbhaya in the Indian press, the play delves into not only her story but also the real-life rape and sexual violence stories of the women in the show. Culture Project’s performances of Nirbhaya at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in New York City ends on May 17th, but there’s talk of bringing it to other states around the country soon, so there’s still time to see the work that is being heralded as more than a play, but a movement. And movement really is the right word for the work. It’s a piece of nonfiction that compels us to change our way of thinking about the stories of those who endure horrific acts of sexual violence, and hopefully physically moves us to demand change in others.

Each of the people involved was brought to the project in different ways. From hearing about Nirbhaya’s story on Facebook, through sharing a connection with her, like living near the bus stop she got on that night. Nirbhaya and the brutality of the violent act inflicted on her affected everyone in different ways which made the play that much more gripping on the audience.

Japjit Kaur, the woman who currently plays Nirbhaya on the show, stated that when she first heard about Nirbhaya’s brutal gang-rape and murder, she “couldn’t even read past the second paragraph.” So when she was contacted, auditioned and accepted into the show, she could not have been more frightened to play the part.

“I was scared. Initially, I thought ‘Oh my god I couldn’t even read what had happened to her. How will I play what she went through?’” Kaur admitted. “But there was something about that initial conversation with Yael [Farber, the director] about what had happened. It made me so angry and I was raging. I thought, ‘This is it. If not now, then when?’ That was the beginning of my journey.”

Kaur joined the cast later than some of the others, but like them, she knew right away the importance of the piece.

“Growing up around people in India, I knew what it was like for women. It was like ‘Oh they’ve got a baby girl,’ and it’s like somebody’s died,” she said. “Having grown up with that being normal, it made me realize that ‘Hold on, this is in the fabric of our society.’ And if we don’t speak up about it, the change will never occur.”

When the time came for rehearsals, Kaur would sit back and listen to the stories these brave women were sharing about the horrific acts of sexual violence committed against them and Kaur worried about how draining the show must be for everyone involved.

Nirbhaya

“I developed these really, really horrible stomach aches because over the days and weeks, I just kept hearing stuff and internalizing it all. I had never done anything of this sort before,” she said. “By the end of it, we were dead, we were drained.”

But when during and after her first show, things changed. The atmosphere of the play was different, the audience made everything feel more real and important.

“It was the first time we saw how the organism moved. It was the first time I realized to what level we were doing this work, and it was beyond this world,” Kaur said. “It wasn’t a play, it felt like a revolution, a movement. I felt so charged up, it was almost like we were going to war.”

Adding to that, Kaur explained that the performances have continued to feel impactful as people from around the world, not just India, have opened up about their struggles with sexual violence.

“We’re in new york right now and in days since we’ve opened, I can’t tell you the amount of people who have come forward and told us their own stories, and admitted for the very first time that they are rape victims. It happens everywhere,” she said.

But despite that, many people still believe the problem of sexual violence against women is so centralized in India and not many places elsewhere. However, Kaur remembered a moment that made her realize how much more widespread this epidemic really is.

“Yael, who is from South Africa, was jealous at the fact that the streets of India rose in protest after this happened, and she said none of that happened anywhere else in the world,” Kaur explained. “But it happened in India, and that means people are pissed off, and people want that change. They’ve had enough. This is the time.”

Poorna Jagannathan, a producer and cast member of the show, explained why Nirbhaya’s story affected so much more than any other case of rape in India and in the world.

“For anyone, this hit closer to home than anything else… It was the simplicity of her just taking a bus to get home met with the brutality of what happened that was just ingrained in all our minds. We got up out of our homes and onto the street and said enough is enough,” she stated. “All around me, everybody started breaking their silences. Every interaction I had, we were talking about our own stories. Journalists were writing their own stories. So it was a time when the silence started coming apart.”

Nirbhaya

That being said, the brutal gang rape and murder wasn’t necessarily different than others, Jagannathan explained.

“What happened on that bus isn’t an anomaly, it’s the domino effect of a culture that has been quiet about an epidemic for way too long.”

For Jagannathan, rehearsals of the show began earlier than for Kaur and she was intimately involved in the storytelling, being that one of the stories is her own. Jagannathan originally reached out to Yael Farber about creating the piece with testimonials rather than a fictionalization of what had occurred. And during rehearsals for the show, Jagannathan realized how large the umbrella for the term “sexual violence” really was.

“It was remarkable to hear what our definitions of sexual violences were. Because Priyanka [Bose] and I were the only ones who had had actual sexual assault as children, no one else had and it was a group of seven. And as the days would go on, this one girl described that when she was young she was walking on the railroad platform, her father was a couple of feet ahead, and some guy came up to her and got his fingers up into her body. And then she told her father, and her father was just like ‘Oh ho.’ And then Yael said, ‘Who else has experienced that?’ And everyone was like ‘Oh that, yea.’ So what was becoming very apparent is the fabric of sexual violence is interwoven into our culture very deeply, so much so that it’s so normalized, it’s so every day, it’s so boring that we’ve stopped seeing it for what it is. We don’t recognize it as a human rights violation, we just see it as being the cost of being of a woman. We get touched, we get felt up and groped and raped. And that’s just the cost.”

Nirbhaya

Jagannathan continued, “The play’s power is calling it by it’s name. What happens to you on a bus, what happens to you when you are a child, what happens to you when you suffer sexual assault? How do you put words to that? And how do you come to terms with the impact of it?” Jagannathan said.

Other projects and stories about Nirbhaya have come to the forefront since the start of this particular production, including the documentary “India’s Daughters” which chronicled one of Nirbhaya’s rapists’ comments that rape should basically be blamed on the victim. And the team is quite familiar with these different works as it continues to bring light to a widespread problem.

“I thought the documentary was excellent,” Jagannathan said. “I also looked at it and thought ‘Wow we have a long way to go.’ Sexual violence is a mindset where a woman is continually seen as being worth less than a man. If we were valued equally why wouldn’t we be represented as such? The documentary was a manifestation of that. It’s not just his words or the lawyers. It’s not two or three people who have completely different views from the rest of India, it’s that the mindset is prevalent in most places. Maybe it’s not to that extent, maybe it’s not even voiced like that. We have to stop saying ‘Oh that’s just the rapist, he shouldn’t allowed a platform to say these things.’ No, that’s the monster you’re dealing with that society thinks that way. He very much comes from us, he’s very much of our thought.”

The goal now for the play, according to Jagannathan, is to try and turn it into a documentary only because she feels as though they can’t reach the mass audience they would like to reach. But as for the takeaway for those whom the play has touched, it’s now our turn to change our mindsets.

As Jagannathan would say,

“Each one of us is accountable for sustaining this cultural violence, either through apathy or ignorance. It’s a call to action. It’s time to join the revolution.”

The play is running from April 16–May 17 at the Lynn Redgrave Theater on Tuesday-Saturday at 8p.m. and Sunday at 5p.m. Visit their website for showtimes and tickets.


keertanaSBorn in Texas, went to college in Missouri and now living in New York City, Keertana Sastry has a unique perspective on being Indian in different parts of America. Keertana has been working as both an entertainment, culture and lifestyle reporter, as well as a casting assistant for the film and TV industry. She loves to infuse her Indian heritage into her work and life.

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

Joyland: A Film Rising Above Unacceptability With a Story of Acceptance

joyland

Haider wades his way through Karachi’s expansive beach, climbing and tumbling over rocks, in Mumtaz’s memory. The vast landscape is perfectly encapsulated in the 4:3 aspect ratio — an unconventional yet welcoming choice. He vanishes into the sea, leaving his storyline open-ended. The screen fades to black. The film comes to a close. The gentle humming and lapping of the waves disappear. However, I stay put. Stumped, and unable to comprehend the masterpiece that Saim Sadiq, director of “Joyland”, has blessed Pakistanis with.

[Read Related: Pakistan Had its First-Ever Trans Pride Parade in Lahore]

The winner of the jury prize at the Cannes film festival, as well as Pakistan’s entry for the Academy Awards 2023, “Joyland” has been marred with controversies (and subsequent bans) from the onset of its win. Ironic, since the film’s core message promotes tolerance and acceptance. Tolerance for unconventional norms, sexual/gender identities, and human emotions and desires.

“It’s so important to narrate these stories in today’s world, where we’re often divided and seldom united,” says producer Apoorva Charan during an exclusive chat with Brown Girl Magazine.

It’s her feature film debut as a producer, and she’s justifiably beaming with pride.

Joyland is such a win for South Asia, but particularly, Pakistani storytelling. Every person I met, I felt like there was some characteristic or quirk about them that mirrored our characters in the film.

Set in the depths of androon Lahore, “Joyland” primarily revolves around Haider (Ali Junejo) — a meek, unemployed house husband in a borderline, passionless marriage. He’s happily helping Saleem bhai (Sohail Sameer) and Nucci bhabi (Sarwat Gilani) raise three kids, while the fourth one breaks Nucci’s water in the opening scene. Another girl is born, despite the ultrasound’s previous declaration of a baby boy. 

“If I were to receive an award based on my character in “Joyland”, it’d definitely be for “best at single-handedly increasing the population of Pakistan,” says Gillani, as we howl with laughter during our spoiler-riddled chat with the cast of the film. “I think that, combined with the ‘coolest bhabi’ — those two will have my name on them.”

But Nucci’s wasn’t just a bhabi who pumped out a new baby every year. Sarwat’s character was given some level of agency — a woman who reminisced about a career in interior design before marriage and kids while smoking a cigarette in secrecy.

I think my philanthropic work plays a part in how I started saying no to bechari roles. How can I be a role model to these women I’m trying to help, while playing the same characters? The change came about with “Churails” and I vehemently stuck to it. My characters need to have a voice; a backbone.

On the other hand, Haider’s wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), works as a beautician at the local salon, busy dolling up brides in Lahore’s unpredictable load-shedding.

Both Haider and Mumtaz seem to have a relatively stable marriage based equally on societal expectations and gender-flipped roles. While Haider stays home, helps in the kitchen, and attempts at searching for a traditional job, Mumtaz carves autonomy and independence for herself. This is in spite of an oppressive family life characterised and dictated by Haider’s overly conservative, traditionalist father and patriarch, Rana (Salmaan Peerzada), who wishes for the couple to procreate a cricket team of just boys. 

But Rana, known as Abba Jee, is also layered with his own 50 shades of grey, struggling with loneliness and a lack of intimacy, mirrored in his relationship with next-door neighbour Fayyaz (Sania Saeed). His emotional desires are symbolised by his physical impediments — the former handicapped with “what will people say”, and the latter with a wheelchair. The rules that he has for his children are the same that his children have for him, bound by tradition, norms, and society. They are not allowed to stray from what is considered “normal”.

The film’s women are strong which is pretty much a reflection of the women in Sadiq’s life. While Abba Jee shuns the love and companionship that Fayyaz offers, she stands her ground until firmly asked to leave. The complexity of each person’s emotions versus expectations is what makes “Joyland” relatable on a human level.

joyland
Rasti Farooq channels Mumtaz’s apprehensions and predicament with the utmost believability.

Alternatively, Mumtaz’s relationship with Haider is based on convenience and habit, where two people share the same bed but sleep facing away (partially because one of Saleem and Nucci’s young daughters crashes with them every night, illustrating the confined space both Haider and Mumtaz are allowed to be themselves in). The dynamics of their marriage drastically evolve once Haider’s eye catches Biba (Alina Khan), covered in blood as she walks numbingly into the hospital where Nucci gave birth. The introductory scene mirrored the brutal reality of violence inflicted upon Pakistan’s trans community; one of “Joyland’s” most haunting moments. 

Mumtaz is asked to quit her job once Haider lands a gig as a “theatre manager” — a cover-up for his job as a background dancer at the nightclub Biba coincidentally performs at. The film portrays the traditional Pakistani marital social dynamic; men must work, and women must housekeep. Even when some level of independence is allowed to a married woman, she must forego her right to a career later in life. Understandably, it leaves Mumtaz devastated.

“It’s so strange how that’s just an acceptable act in our society,” Farooq chimes in, voicing Mumtaz’s thoughts. “Even if a woman is good at a 100 things, ultimately, she’s expected to quit her job to be a homemaker because that’s ‘her job’.”

With time, Haider falls into a routine and rhythm of working at the theatre and spending more time with Biba, allowing him an insight into the widespread transphobia she’s regularly faced with. Biba confides her innermost desire to be what she termed as “a complete woman” in order to land the same dancing opportunities as her counterparts.

 

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Haider’s daring closeness to Biba leaves Mumtaz — who at this point is reliant on him as a best friend more than the physical intimacy he fitfully provides her — alone, isolated, and depressed. For Haider, it is liberating to leave problems at home and escape into a secret world centred around his deepest desires. He doesn’t want to be a bad person. He doesn’t wish to hurt or leave his wife. But his happiness now seemingly lies in dancing and exchanging stolen kisses with Biba. Farooq agrees:

I think Mumtaz and Haider were best friends at this point. They had an unspoken love for each other, which stemmed from the sanctity of their relationship. They might not be in love but they did love each other. In the eyes of our society and otherwise, they were married, but they’d drifted so far apart. There was love but it wasn’t possible to return from how distant they were.

This point of no return brings Haider to a crossroads — one where he is torn between his loyalty to Mumtaz and his love for Biba. Ultimately and ironically, in a particularly passionate moment, it is his curiosity pertaining to Biba’s sexuality that drives her to throw him out of her life. Defeated and guilt-ridden, he comes face-to-face with a pregnant and non-confrontational Mumtaz, who, by now, is aware of what Haider has been up to but doesn’t have the mental capacity to verbally digest his infidelity alongside a child she doesn’t want.

Her apprehensions about bearing and raising children are indicated throughout the early days of her pregnancy. The clutching of her stomach, the tightening of the rollercoaster belt during a visit to Joyland park, and her unease during the ultrasound are just a few examples of Mumtaz’s angst. 

Abba Jee’s 70th birthday was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mumtaz, surrounded by family and friends and feeling emptier than ever, takes her own life. A tragic full circle where one life ends as the other begins. Her suicide is harbingered by Rana’s birthday speech as he recalls a palmist once saying his bloodline would end with Haider. 

[Read Related: #JusticeforJulie: Pakistan’s Failure to Protect its Vulnerable Trans Population]

“Joyland” is replete with polarity. There is a seamless hand-in-hand flow of happiness and devastation, longing and antipathy, birth and death. Pakistani society’s struggles with misogynistic gender roles are depicted in the most gentle, sensitive, and nuanced ways. The struggle is also ironic, considering Pakistan has one of the most progressive transgender legislations in the world. Trans people have the right to self-identify their ­gender in Pakistan – a right still denied to the trans community in many progressive countries, such as the UK.

A deeply reflective film with memorable and emotional characters doing justice to their performances. It’s currently running in cinemas here in the UK, and we highly recommend watching this poignant piece of art.

Photos Courtesy: Studio Soho/Khoosat Films

By Queenie Shaikh

Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and … Read more ›

Anita Verma-Lallian Launches Arizona’s First South Asian-owned Film Production and Entertainment Company

Anita Verma-Lallian

Indian-American commercial real estate and land consultant Anita Verma-Lallian launched Camelback Productions at an event held in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Jan. 7. Billed as the state’s first women-and South Asian-owned film production and entertainment company, it will focus on South Asian representation and storytelling, according to a press statement issued by Verma-Lallian. The announcement follows “Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s $125 million film tax credit for film and TV production that was introduced in July 2022, “ the statement added.

The Jan. 7 private launch party and meet and greet introduced investors and supporters to what’s ahead for Camelback Productions.

Noting the “major push to see minority groups represented in the media over the past few years,” Verma-Lallian said she wants to see more South Asians represented. “I want my children to see themselves when they watch TV. I want my daughter’s dream to become an actress to become a reality. Skin color shouldn’t be a barrier to that.”

The event opened with remarks from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who has served as the city’s 62nd mayor since 2019. She welcomes the company to “the greater Phoenix community.” She expressed confidence that “the team will attract some of the country’s top talent to the Valley.”

Guests at the event included actor and comedian Lilly Singh, actor Nik Dodani, Aparna of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” Bali Chainani and Anisha Ramakrishna of Bravo’s “Family Karma” fame, and Paramount+ executive P. Sean Gupta, to name a few.

 

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The company is Verma-Lallian’s first venture into the film industry. She is known for providing full concierge services for land seekers and developers of all types of sites and assists investors in discovering viable properties in the Phoenix area through her company, Arizona Land Consulting, the statement added.

Named in honor of the iconic Camelback Mountain in the Valley, Verma-Lallian says she wants her production company to have the same indestructible foundation. Camelback Productions plans to begin its first project later this summer.

Indo Caribbean Actress Saheli Khan Lands Role as Young Anna in Disney’s Musical ‘Frozen’

Saheli Khan, young anna in disney frozen
Saheli Khan

From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.

[Read Related: Rebecca Ablack: The Guyanese Actress Talks Netflix’s “Ginny and Georgia” and Indo Caribbean Representation]

Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.

Continue reading to learn more about her journey!

What do you like about acting the most?

I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.

As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?

Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.

Saheli Khan
Saheli in Hidden Folk outfit| Photo courtesy of Saheli Khan

 

What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?

Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.

Who is your inspiration and why?

My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.

If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?

I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie. 

What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?

There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.

What are your other passions?

I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.

Saheli Khan
Saheli dressed in her “Young Anna” costume | Photo courtesy of Saheli Khan

What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?

To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.

 Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?

I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.

What types of roles do you see yourself playing?

I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.

What are your plans for the future?

To be the best version of myself regardless of what career path I choose.

[Read Related: Nadia Jagessar Talks Finding Love, Not Settling and Shines Light on her Indo-Caribbean Roots]

Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here

Feature Image Courtesy: Saheli Khan

By Anita Haridat

Anita Haridat is the owner of the wellness website, Healthy Spectator, which is a platform to help people find inner-balance … Read more ›