This new play explores the intergenerational cycle of prostitution in India, through the story of five young women trying to escape it
Suzanne Millar’s bAKEHOUSE Theatre, which is resident at and runs the tiny traverse space inside Kings Cross Hotel, is one of the most ambitious companies in the country. Their latest work, Jatinga, is the result of a cross-cultural collaboration with Mumbai’s Aarambh Theatre and its artistic director, playwright Purva Naresh. The result is a 90-minute epic much bigger than its small performance space; a crackling examination of the plight of exploited women in India.
Madhumita (Suz Mawer) is a Mumbai journalist punished for refusing to ‘sensationalise’ her investigative journalism by an assignment to the ‘wildlife beat’ (invented just for her). Her mission? To visit Jatinga, a site of mass bird suicide.
In her train carriage she finds a few stowaways. There’s Manda (Faezeh Jalali), Bindiya (Karina Bracken), and Nandi (Sheila Kumar), sisters whose mother was tried as a witch and burned after their father’s death; Chutki (Teresa Tate Britten), whose typewriting skills can’t help her find work in the age of the computer; and Champa (Trishala Sharma), a hockey-playing firebrand who has recently escaped from sex trafficking.
As a keening Very Old Woman (Sapna Bhavnani) mourns for Jatinga’s doomed birds and a Mihima Tour Guide (Monroe Reimers) sells the spectacle to tourists, Madhumita must decide whether she can save these girls from their own one-way journeys – because none of them see their lives as tenable or improvable – or if simply reporting on their stories would have greater impact.
Millar directs this production, and while it takes a few moments to warm up – the opening scene feels particularly stilted, though it has a rich payoff later – it soon falls into an irresistible blend of music (Nate Edmondson’s soundscape is particularly evocative), movement, puppetry, and arresting performances. You especially won’t be able to tear your eyes away from Trishala Sharma, making her stage debut here as the headstrong, suspicious Champa.
Jatinga’s impact is not limited to this stage production: it’s a work designed to create social impact through theatre from beginning to end. Millar conceived of the idea while teaching drama classes at the APNE Aap Women’s Collective, which serves women and children in the red light area of Mumbai, and bAKEHOUSE is involved in philanthropy, contributing to a vocational training and support program for women affected by human trafficking. Members of the creative team have been supported to travel to Sydney from Mumbai and from Mumbai to Sydney for the play’s performances in each country, and Bhavnani, along with her work as a performer in Mumbai, is setting up India’s first feminist library.
As a complete experience, Jatinga not only builds awareness of the complexities of women’s issues across India, it also addresses those problems through activism and capacity-building programs. This holistic approach to arts-as-activism is one we don’t see very often in Sydney and it will serve, hopefully, as a reminder that the politics of a theatre piece don’t need to stop when the lights come back up and the audience applauds: a show can provoke follow-up actions and stand as an agent for change.
For one of our smallest companies to reach out so far beyond themselves to make a difference in the world is remarkable. The play is compelling and so is its reach, so don’t miss it – and next time a ‘cause’ on stage moves you, find out how you can help.