Content warning: sexual assault
To kick off Women’s History Month, on March 3, The Marsh Theater held a livestreamed conversation with Dipti Mehta about her play, “Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan.” Mehta shared a few clips from the play — performed pre-pandemic — and discussed her approach to the storyline and characters as both the playwright and the solo performer. The conversation was a part of The Marsh’s Solo Arts Heal program, a series of weekly free conversations with special guests providing healing education and advocacy.
Zooming in from Mumbai, India, Mehta launched right into the play’s context and motivations. Living in Mumbai, she explained, she would occasionally take a specific bus route that would travel “from the richest to the poorest” neighborhoods in the city. This was how she was first exposed to Mumbai’s Red Light District, and was inspired to write a play about a 16-year-old girl whose mother is a prostitute and is teaching her to be a courtesan.
Mehta played a clip from the performance in which she switches between the roles of Rani (the courtesan-in-training) and Draupadi, a princess who is objectified and ridiculed. The stage is adorned with beautiful fabrics hanging from the rafters and Mehta at center stage. After playing the clip, Mehta explained the dramatic rewrite that came to include Draupadi’s character, as she stated that “a woman’s plight is the same, whether she is a princess or a prostitute’s daughter.”
The following clips offered a glimpse at some of the other characters, such as Rani’s pimp and Rani’s mother. At many points in the conversation, The Marsh’s host, Kristin Scheel, returned to the horror of the subject matter, pointing out the terrible reality of Rani’s pimp and how sad it is that her mother is training her to be a prostitute. However, Mehta rejected this one-dimensional narrative, explaining that the performance seeks to complicate black-and-white notions of good and bad.
Rani’s mother, Chameli, is one of the most nuanced characters of the show. She exudes genuine love and care towards Rani, and wants her to have a better life than she has had. The audience learns that Chameli was sold and gang-raped at a young age, and then turned to prostitution because she had no other options. Mehta explains she crafted these characters “not to get judgmental with people, but to show their layers of personality… (and) find those common threads that ties us as human beings.”
Although the audience was only given a few glimpses into the play, those glimpses are beautifully performed, with Mehta transforming her voice, mannerisms and movements with each character she embodies. The clips shown were surprisingly funny, despite the heavy content matter, and include many instances of Mehta interacting directly with the audience — making one ache for the joy of live, in-person performance.
Scheel asked Mehta how the women she has met, both sex trafficking survivors and sex workers, reacted when they first saw the performance. Mehta explains that the women she has met from Mumbai feel healed by the vocalization of their experiences, but sex workers from Canada, who feel empowered by their work, didn’t relate to the performance. Mehta explained that while it is wonderful that sex workers in other parts of the world feel empowered, this is not the case in India, where sex workers are not considered real citizens.
Mehta has worked on other forms of media focused upon the representation of sex trafficking survivors in India, such as the comic book “Priya and the Lost Girls,” along with other academic papers. She is committed to raising awareness to the horrors of sex trafficking, the stigma towards survivors, and the inability of women to escape their captors because, Mehta said, “the system is so broken, everyone is in on it.”
Overall, the panel was a succinct sampling of Mehta’s work, and included an important discussion about the lack of support, options or help that sexual violence survivors are offered. While it is disappointing to have only sampled a few clips of the production, viewers are left to hope that “Honour: Confessions of a Mumbai Courtesan” will be performed in its entirety soon.
Nathalie Grogan covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].