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Anita Singh Feminist Interventions

A Reading of Lights Out, Getting Away with Murder and Mangalam

Indian Women Dramatists
When talking about women dramatists in Indian Drama in English we cannot override the problem of
English language intelligibility among the Indian audiences; we also cannot ignore the fact that very few
women took to playwriting. A few names that come freely to our minds are those of Bharati Sarabhai
(the Well of the People; Two Women) Manjeri Iswaran (Hira Bai; Vama and Yami), and Uma Maheswer
(Buddha; Sita in Her Sorrows). In the twentieth century, Indian English drama intersected with the
feminist thought which brought in the question of power imbalance that prevails in our society. Dina
Mehta, Poile Sengupta, Manjula Padmanabhan, Tripurari Sharma among others are writing plays in
English and their productions are characterized by the projection of the consciousness and condition of
woman as woman .
Emergence of Indian Feminist Theatre
Though feminist theatre was an emergent cultural form in the 1970s it had its origin in the experimental
theatre group and womens movement. The form of the experimental theatre and the agenda of the
womens movement shaped the content and mounting of plays. It sought a definition and found several:
i) Production and script characterized by consciousness of women as women;
ii) Dramaturgy in which art is inseparable from the condition of women as women; performances
(written and acted) that deconstructs sexual differences and thus undermines patriarchal power;
iii) Scripting and production that presents transformation as a structural and ideological replacement for
recognition and creation of women characters in the subject position.
Among theatre practitioners, relentless efforts are underway to unearth and draw into the centre of
i) Practitioners who have been marginalized,
ii) To redraw boundaries of the canon,
iii) To include those who offer different perspectives or originate outside of the traditional cultural elite.

This option has been pursued most successfully by feminist dramatists / actors / critics / directors who
have done much to re-introduce women until recently written out of theatre history.

Lights Out, Getting Away with Murder and Mangalam as feminist play-texts
Lights Out, Mangalam, and Getting Away with Murder can be perceived as feminist play- texts as they
attempt to deconstruct patriarchal metaphysics. These three plays are a part of the on-going effort by
women to understand and write about their lives.
Lights Out
Lights out by Manjula Padmanabhan was first performed in 1986 by Sol Theatre Company at Prithivi
Theatre, Mumbai. The daily screams of a woman in obvious pain destroys the fabric of domesticity of a
middle class couple, divided in their responses to her anguish. As the play unfolds, one begins to realize
that she is not the only woman coping with abuse. Not surprisingly this horrific incident is used to
epitomize the violence and exploitative neo- colonialism of male dominant Indian society.
The play is in three scenes. In the first scene we are introduced to the couple Bhasker and Leela in their
middle-class flat. What bothers Leela is that every night in a building under construction next to their
house a crime is being committed and shrieks of a woman being molested is heard. Bhaskers stand is: I
dont want to stick my neck out, thats all (7), but for Leela, she cannot absolve herself from the guilt of
being a passive observer of a woman being molested just outside her house: that were part of what
happens outside. That by watching it, were making ourselves responsible (7). She exhibits a concern
for the victimized woman, reveals her own situational helplessness coupled with dread and panic.
Scene two begins with the arrival of Mohan a guest who has been invited over for dinner. Mohan is
also acquainted with the morbid, macabre scene enacted night after night. He is curious but takes it
seriously: how often can you stand and watch a crime being committed right in front of you (15). A
doubt still nags him: unless they actually call for help, is it our business to go? Thats the question. After
all, it may be something private, a domestic fight, how can we intervene? Personally, Im against
becoming entangled in other peoples private lives (20). Here, the dramatist raises an important moral
issue; can crime be categorized as private and public? It is quite commonplace to hear of domestic
violence being dubbed as a family matter, as Mohan says: unless it is murder, I dont think anyone
should come between the members of a family (20). One may further ask should domestic aggression
be allowed to assume such horrendous proportion for the onlooker to act. It is difficult to decipher
torture, to quote Leela what shall we describe as torture? It is too vague a term, Ive always felt (20-
21). Psychological oppression or what women themselves refer to as mental torture or emotional
violence has not been sufficiently documented because of what is considered lack of evidence, that is,
women often do not talk about this aspect of their lives and nor is there any proof of their experience.
Various speculations ensue regarding the nature of the daily attacks that go on. But for Leela no amount
of intellectualizing can make her accept the situation as anything other than: its four people ganging up
on one victim (27).
Scene three opens with the bizarre sounds of a woman screaming for help. The sound is ragged and
unpleasant with distinct words Let me go! Help me! But as the evening progresses it degenerates
into a general screaming and sobbing. Leelas friend Naina appears on stage. The sinister scene is shown
to her. Naina like Leela is agonized by the sounds while the men Bhasker and Mohan are fascinated and
morbidly curious. The violence that is done to the womens psyche by the victims piteous cries for help
are explained off by the men telling them, after all these women who were molested night after night
may be only prostitutes who voluntarily subjected themselves to physical violation on a daily basis. The
playwright raises a whole range of issues is a prostitute not a women? Can she not seek justice against
sexual violation? The men in the play clearly believe that: a whore is not decent, so a whore cannot be
raped (40). Naina responds: if only decent woman can be raped what is the point of being decent?
Nainas husband Surinder makes an appearance. The three men decide to act to kill the aggressor and
rescue the victim. Their decision to act may have come a little too late as the oppressors have left the
scene of the crime. However the play does show men sensitized towards atrocities against women and
their need to collectively act against it
Getting Away with Murder
Dina Mehtas Getting Away with Murder was first performed in 1990 by Indus International, a socio-
cultural group for women, at British Council Theatre, Mumbai. It maps the life of three friends as they
undergo the grueling journey through their own private hells as they deal with body blows like
childhood sexual abuse, discrimination, infidelity, and insecure relationships. They ultimately learn to
free themselves of guilt, shame, and humiliation to emerge as stronger women at the end of it.
The play is in two acts. The first act has four scenes, while the second act has six scenes. As the play
opens we are introduced to two friends Mallika and Sonali. Sonalis life is in disarray. She divulges to
Mallika her problems with her mother-inlaw: she is a witch, sly, secretive. She spies on me, I know,
she stores up evidence against me with which to bludgeon me one day (intensely) my mother-in-law
hates me, Malu (58).She has developed a fear psychosis and imagines that someone indoors is
watching me. From the taxi this morning I looked up at my window and saw a withered hand at the
parting of my curtains. (58). Going back to history revealed some facts about Sonalis enigmatic nature
as a sign of being deprived of having an understanding mother. In one of her recapitulations Sonali
records: my mother used to exhaust herself over her household tasks - may be because she was
grateful to uncle for taking us after father died. She drove herself and turned me into her satellite: I had
to run errands her errands, mouth her opines, feel her feelings of course, Gopal escaped all that
because he was born with an extra set of accessories (59). These words establish the traditional Indian
mother who shows gender discrimination in her treatment of her son Gopal and her daughter Sonali.
Sonali further confides in Mallika that she is pregnant and wants amniocentesis done. Mallika is
outraged: I thought only ignorant women had this prejudice or depraved women with drudgery as their
lot, who are sucked into further poverty and debts when they spawn daughters because girls need
dowries... But to someone like you, how can it matter if the first child is a boy or girl?(62).The
discrimination and deprivation that Sonali was subjected to in the past becomes a psychic residue in her
personal unconscious. She has been brought up with the idea that: a womens failure to bear a son is
just retribution for the misdeeds in her past life?(63).

Mallika too has her tale of woe. Her partner in business is a male chauvinist , Mr. Pankaj Pingalay, who
has the gall to tell her that women should stick to secretarial work or , at best , PR work knowing full
well that it is Malu whos there on the front line , getting all the business, running the entire office.
Sexual harassment against women is rampant in work places. Malus secretary Thelma reveals that she
is harassed by Mr. Pingly: he he makes vulgar talk and wicked gestures asking me to accompany
him to hotels outside the city (70).

The third friend, Raziya who is a doctor, has her stockpile of sorrows too. Her husband Habib plans to
marry a nineteen-year-old girl as her mother-in-law has been agitating about it for a long time: you see
Malu, I cant give him children (77). Mallika is appalled at the indignity Raziya is ready to bear my god,
one just has to find out what a woman will tamely submit to (77). Indian women find it difficult to
break free from the shackles of the oppressive traditions. This is where Raziya locates the cause of
Mallika, Sonali and her predicament I find an ancient tyranny at work within me that mans desire for
children must be satisfied. Just as Sonali believes that a womens inferior status is partially redeemed
when she becomes a mother of sons. And just as you dear Malu, believe that man has the right to the
body of a women younger than he (78). But Raziya is not the one to exonerate herself from the guilt,
she is prepared to face the situation squarely, she acknowledges that the villain is not man alone, but
women also have been complicitous agents of patriarchy all along: but dont fool yourself that you and
I are so different Malu! Or that by identifying man as villain we have won our fight for equality! The
enemy is within, dont you see? Its in our minds, Mallika that we are underlings!(78). Sonalis irrational
behavior is finally diagnosed by Gopal who comes to his sisters rescue and confesses: my sister was
sexually abused from the time she was eight years old (88). He accepts his guilt as: I did nothing to
help her, nothingI could have told her to kickkick where it hurtsI could have yelled for mother
instead of hiding my face in the bedcovers to distance the nightmareI was in the same room and I did
nothing (88).Sonalis childhood sexual abuse has steeped down her psyche as a bad human experience.
She lives under the strain of a serious psychological confusion. When Sonali arranges the death of her
molester (her own uncle), her brother Gopal abets her silently. The woman here is not a passive victim
nor is the male the indifferent observer as in Padmanabhans Lights Out. While Sonali relives the
traumatic betrayal by her so called uncle; her husband Anil sustains her through his love and
understanding. She realizes that her mother-in-law is not a sadist. She has confronted her real self. She
has overcome herself, killed the ghosts that haunted her and found her way to salvation. A traditional
dramatic structure would often hinge on exposition, complication/conflict and denouement. This
feminist play is hinged on revelation and recognition.

Getting Away with Murder goes beyond the narrow feminist agenda by encompassing in its feminist
narration a broader perspective in which violence against women is countered not just by women but
also men and women fighting a patriarchal order of dominant males and complicitous females.

Mangalam by Poile Sengupta was first performed in 1994 by Playpen at Guru Nanak Bhavan, Bangalore.
Act 1 with three scenes is a play within a play and the audiences of the play are the characters we meet
in the second Act. The second Act which has four scenes is an enactment of the watchers of the play
whose life appears not very different from the play they had seen and were commenting on. Mangalam,
the character in Act I, was a victim of rape, while Sumati the viewer in Act II, is in turn the victim of
Act II Scene I deals with the joint family set up in a Tamil Brahmin middle-class household. The mother of
the house, Mangalam has recently died. We meet Dorai, the widower, the father of Sriram, Mani, Usha,
Chitra and Kannan. Revathy, the daughter-in-law is the wife of Mani the second son. The eldest son,
Sriram is in USA. The daughter Usha is married in a well-to-do but avaricious family where as the
neighbor; Kamala tells us they are making life miserable for Usha, In spite of sacks of gifts that go to
that house from here (106).
Act I Scene I comes to a close with Dorai announcing ashen faced that Chitra has run away to marry the
boy whom she loved. The playwright employs the dramaturgical device of a female voice, the narrators
voice that is heard off stage interspersing the scenes in both acts. This device enables the dramatist to
lament about womens lot in society:

Female voice (off):
Because a woman has patience,
She is not allowed to speak;
Others speak for her,
And she never learns the words.
In Act I Scene II when Kannan the youngest son of Dorai comes asking for his school fees Dorais pent up
anger finds a violent outburst: get out! Get out! How dare you come at this time with your stupid
problems? Fees! Special classes! Your mother is dead, your whore of a sister has eloped and you come
here for fees (109). In his anger Dorai rakes up his past grievances against his dead wife: she was
always the superior one she had to marry a poor priests son because nobody else would have touched
her, not one decent man would have touched her (109). It is soon revealed that Mangalam was
pregnant at the time of her marriage, this was the cause of Dorais bitterness: every moment I spent in
this house, in her house, I have to live with it. That they bought me, her family bought me to me keep
their good name. Her father bought me. To keep his self-respect, for his daughters self-respect (109).

Act I Scene III functions as a revelation scene. It enumerates the systematic treachery Dorai heaped on
his wife Mangalam. Thangam accuses Dorai: you stayed with her so that you could punish her every
minute of her life. You mocked her and taunted her, you tortured her, I have seen the marks of your
hands on her body. Your nail marks (121). Dorai confesses his treachery that he brutalized his wife both
subtly and overtly: she wouldnt tell me; first I used to ask her softly, sweetly. She wouldnt tell me, and
then I beat her. She stayed quiet, she wouldnt even cry out in pain. She was so obstinate that then it
became a game to see how I could get it out of her (pause). She never told me (121). The notion of
controlling the female body, shaping, reforming, and rerouting its work, movement and space is a
constant and persistent one. This climatic scene ends with the exposure that Mangalam was raped by
her sisters husband.
The first Act with three scenes turns out to be the play that the characters in Act II had seen the
previous day. Act II centers around two families of -Nari and Vaidehi, their son Vikram and daughter
Radha and the other family of Sreeni and Thangam, their son, Suresh and daughter Sumati.
Act II begins with Sumati and Suresh discussing the play. Suresh dismisses the play as: oh, the play it
was terrible, like a Tamil film in English rape, illegitimate son, suicide, wife beating (125). Sumati
acknowledges that women are just objects of possession in a patriarchal culture when she tells Suresh
that: the way you talk about girls, about women, you dont seem to have a speck of respect for them
the moment a women doesnt fit into the category of being a mother or a sister, shes a baggage, sexual
baggage (129). Sumati apprehends herself as victim and is aware of an alien and hostile force, which is
responsible for the blatantly unjust treatment of women and for the stifling and oppressive system of
sex roles. Even in this educated and modern household sex discrimination in subtle and various ways, is
enforced as is evidenced by what Suresh says: when we were children, it was because you were older
than me; and you wanted to be boss. You hated me, you thought Amma loved me more than she loved
you (130). Although Sumati accepts that it was not the conventional deprivation she suffered but the
consciousness of victimization is revelatory: it wasnt like the stuff on doordarshan a care worn girl
peeking at the dry roti while her brother gets all the milk. It wasnt that way at all. But did you ever ask
me how it was for me at school apart from my marks, that is? What I thought of my friends, my
teachers, whom I loved most? I dont even remember you singing me to sleep. You brought me up
efficiently, correctly but without soul.(131).
Two other characters make an appearance, Radha and Vikram. The plot thickens. A love letter is
discovered. It is generally believed that the letter is addressed to Suresh. Although Sreeni, Thangamas
husband is ashen faced when Thangama returns the book which contained the letter to him. Radha,
who tells us that Sumati was engaged to somebody from a big family, describes the details of Sumatis
distress: she had gone out with the man and I think he was violent with her I was also afraid that they
would marry her off in spite of what happened. You know how aunty feels about keeping up
appearances?(142). Sumatis self-esteem has suffered a severe blow. This negative experience has left
its bitter scars on her and she asserts that: a woman who allows herself to be soft, who relinquishes her
weapons well she gets chewed up, doesnt she? I know it is a terrible expression, but then its a
terrible state to be in (149). Mangalam also presents a self-critique for women. The important insight
that the playwright imparts to us through Sumati is that women should accept their own responsibility
for what they are, see how much they have contributed to their own victimization, instead of putting
the blame on everybody except themselves. It is only through self-analysis and self-understanding,
through vigilance and courage; that they can begin to change their lives. They will have to fight their
own battles; nobody is going to do it for them.

Sumati envies her mother as she believes that things were different for her: you were married at
eighteen to a wonderful man who accepted you the way you were, who allowed you to grow, who gave
you financial security, when he came back from work (149). It is a little later we come to know that
Thangama suffered acutely in her marriage to Sreeni as Sreeni had some other woman in his life. The
game of sadism comes to a climatic close at the end of the play when screams: uncle! No...Appa!
Appa!(150) is heard off stage cries of Sumati molested by Nari rends the stage.

The play comes to a close with all the characters on stage and a verse is recited. The message that it
strives to convey is that woman is not defeated in spite of severe hardships. She is capable of holding
the world together:

As for the women, the gods said
Let them be strong, rooted like trees
For it is they who shall hold
The ends of the world together,
And there will be storms
And the winds will blow very strong
But the women will stay like trees,
They will hold the world together (151).

The play showcases that violence against women cuts across every economic, cultural, age and class
group. The two modern educated families in the play are also not untouched by it.

Wrapping up the three plays

Feminist theatre argues that for over two millennia, since even before Aristotle wrote out his Poetics or
after Bharatas Natyashastra and the dramatists that followed, dramatic texts and performances were
dominated by male ideologies. In response, feminist theatre evolved not only to share the tragically
under represented experience of women living in a patriarchal society, but also to create a theatricality
that would subvert traditional theatres most sacred traditions. Theatre practices since ancient times
focused on a single protagonist. The three plays by Manjula Padmanabhan, Dina Mehta and Poile
Sengupta, undermine the classical Indian aesthetic in which a single protagonist follows a linear plot by
focusing on an ensemble (in each of these plays, we have before us the predicament of three to four
female characters), thus dramatizing the feminist belief that the group is more important than the
individual. These three plays crystallize not only an increased self-awareness but also acknowledge the
deep structures of sexual process as the basis for personal and social change. The plays and the process
of making them suggest the possibility of a unity between aesthetic imagination and social process. They
suggest an altering and re-defining of the parameters of social process and action. They affirm the belief
of Feminist theatre in the efficacy of theatre as a tool for conscientization, for critiquing social disparities
and for self-exploration and expression. Such plays are a source of empowerment; they enable women
to speak out. It is at the intersection of art, activism, and social relevance. Such theatre acts as an
instrument of real change in womens lives. It is an exploration of womens own unique idiom - their
own form, their language, and ways of communication. It is a challenge to the established notions of
These plays are linked by a commonality of themes and their intention bound by a common vision. A
recurrent theme is that of psychosexual abuse and how women cope with sexism in everyday life. The
spotlight is on women - stressing the task of self-nurturance - marking out their anguish, the pain, and
often the inferiority that they suffer. But in the conclusion they realize that they have to confront not
only their strengths but also their weaknesses. They learn that to love someone they must first learn to
love themselves, and finally they all seem to echo at one level or another the affirmation in the ringing
words of Mallika in Dina Mehtas Getting Away with Murder: from somewhere, somehow, we must
muster the strength to love (12).
These plays by demonstrating the politics of the personal can empower theatre as well as women. More
such plays need to come to the fore, only then will the process of empowerment begin, as Ambai
succinctly puts it: a multiplicity of texts must happen, and the meaning must descend like a giant mirror
before people, reflecting their lives, their cultures (Introduction to Body Blows).
Body Blows: Women, Violence, and Survival. Seagull Books: Calcutta, 2000. Contains three plays Lights
Out by Manjula Padmanabhan; Getting Away with Murder by Dina Mehta; and Mangalam by Poile
Sengupta. With an introductory essay by C.S.Laxmi (Ambai)