Sex tapes and acid attacks: Anupama Chandrasekhar, the playwright shocking India

Her dramas confront the growing horrors facing women in India today. Now she’s reworked Ibsen’s Ghosts, taking out the syphilis and putting in the Delhi bus gang rape of 2012

Anupama Chandrasekhar isn’t one to shy away from a tough subject. The Indian playwright has written about acid attacks, sex tapes and her home country’s culture of patriarchal violence. “I have been asked so many times, mostly by men, ‘Why don’t you write comedies, or plays that celebrate India?’” she says. “I tell them: on the day that these things don’t happen any more, I will happily start writing bedroom farces.”

Her latest play, When the Crows Visit, takes Ibsen’s Ghosts as its inspiration. This may seem something of a departure, but Chandrasekhar found a surprising degree of affinity within the drama. “Here is a white, male, Norwegian playwright from the 19th century,” she says, “and yet, as an Indian woman in Chennai in the 21st, I find so much resonance in his work.” It is a brilliantly creepy play, building up tension and horror through the crows that bridge the worlds of the living and the dead.

There is one vital – and shocking – twist in her splicing of India with Ibsen. The original featured Mrs Alving and her syphilitic son Oswald, grappling with the awful disease handed down from his father. But in When the Crows Visit, the toxic inheritance comes in the form of sexual violence against women. What’s more, the mother figure, played by Ayesha Dharker, is both a victim of this violence and an enabler. One reference point in the play is the Delhi bus gang rape of 2012. Even though this takes place off stage, the horror is palpable, spreading through the script like a contagion.

Shocking twist … When the Crows Visit, based on Ibsen’s Ghosts.
Shocking twist … When the Crows Visit, based on Ibsen’s Ghosts. Photograph: Photo by Mark Douet

The play is directed by Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director at London’s Kiln theatre, and as the three of us sit in her attic office we talk about turning such inflammatory material into charged drama. It was imperative that the play be conceived by someone rooted in Indian society, says Rubasingham. “Anu’s not only a brilliant playwright – she is writing from a place of knowledge and lived experience. Immediately after I got this job, I wanted to commission her.”

Chandrasekhar has an important reason to return to the Delhi rape. Sexual violence, she says, has become more rife in India since 2012, despite all the national and international hand-wringing that followed the case. “It was not a one-off incident. It has happened over and over again since, and has just become more gory, more brutal. But you can sense the media fatigue around the reporting of crimes against women. If it happens outside of the cities, it’s just another incident. The candlelit vigils don’t happen for women in small towns and villages.”

The resurgence of violence in the country has coincided with the rebirth of its rightwing movement and this, says Chandrasekhar, is complicated by the conflict between modernity and conservatism. “Even 30 or 40 years ago, Indian women were growing up freer than girls are now. My grandmother is a pre-independence woman.” India gained its freedom from Britain in 1947. “She was brought up on the idealism that women are as important as men for the growth of the country. She sees what’s happening to the women around her and says, ‘What’s happened to that promise?’

Police turn water cannon on protesters outraged by 2012’s fatal Delhi bus rape.
Police turn water cannon on protesters outraged by 2012’s fatal Delhi bus rape. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

“You have polls in Tamil magazines debating what is an appropriate way for a woman to dress. Is it OK for them to wear joggers? Is sleeveless OK? You wonder which century you’re living in, but that’s the thing with India. We live in different centuries at the same time: the 21st and the 18th.”

She feels that women’s rights are being reeled back around the world, not just in the subcontinent. But it is how this happens locally that interests her as a playwright. In India, the twin privileges of money and parental protection render some women safer than others. “The most disenfranchised in a lot of societies, not just India, are working-class women,” says Rubasingham. “The minute you have money and power behind you, you can get out of situations.”

The women of privilege in Chandrasekhar’s play not only work alongside men in cities, often proving to be better at their jobs, but are also the enablers and protectors of the flawed and violent men around them. Female complicity is an ethically thorny area, I suggest. Was Chandrasekhar worried that the audience might end up blaming the women?

“I, like Ibsen, am just trying to be faithful to my society’s dynamics,” she says. “I’m fascinated by how culture and patriarchy expresses itself in how women are supposed to behave – and I think Ibsen was too.”

So was Ibsen grappling with “the woman question” as it was labelled in his time? Could he be considered a feminist playwright? And is that why we are seeing female directors and writers increasingly adapting his works? These have included Tanika Gupta, who recently relocated A Doll’s House to 19th-century India; Cordelia Lynn, who turned Hedda Gabler into the far older Hedda Tesman; and Rubasingham herself, who directed Samuel Adamson’s Wife, another reworking of A Doll’s House.

“He was ahead of his time,” says Rubasingham. “What he was really writing about was the tension between the individual and society. Just take A Doll’s House ­– a woman breaking all society norms and leaving her husband in that time was unheard of.” Chandrasekhar first read the play decades ago and its resonance has never left her. “To me, Ibsen’s up there with Shakespeare, because it doesn’t matter which era or what culture you are living in, you find him speaking to you as a contemporary.”

Call centres and debt ... Disconnect.
Call centres and debt ... Disconnect. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Despite her love of literature as a young woman, Chandrasekhar came to playwriting circuitously. She started off as a news journalist but ended up on a business publication, dissatisfied by its focus on money and restrictive language. Yet it was this background in reporting that fed her social conscience when she began writing plays. After doing a part-time British Council course in Chennai, she got a fellowship at London’s Royal Court and her career was born in earnest. “I saw people my age doing important things and saw how important they felt their voices were to their own countries. I felt I could be part of this. I could matter.”

Her first – and much celebrated – UK play was 2007’s Free Outgoing, which dramatised the insidious power of the internet, as a teenager’s sex tape is circulated around her school in Chennai (or Madras, as the capital city of Tamil Nadu state was formerly known). The same year in India, Acid was staged by the Madras Players, featuring the horrific titular attacks on women. Then came Disconnect, again set in Chennai – this time in a call centre that collects credit card debt – which revolves around a young call centre worker who becomes romantically fixated on a debt-ridden librarian in Illinois.

Her work has not been cancelled or gatecrashed by the police, but she is constantly under pressure to tone it down or remove its contentions. Yet she resists. There is certainly a rising generation of bold young women writers in India, she says, even if they are not all playwrights – but #MeToo is not having the same impact it had in the west. “For instance, a Tamil singer outed a very famous lyricist and you’d think that the whole of society would support her. It didn’t. She has been banned by the industry and he’s doing the things he always did. Her career has been destroyed. She’s not the only person you see this happening to. Women are speaking, but they are being punished for it. This is the difference.”

  • When the Crows Visit is at the Kiln, London, until 30 November.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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