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Makarand Deshpande's latest play wants to change mindsets

The actor-director's recent plays have revolved around strong female characters. And his latest, being staged at Prithvi Theatre, carries this forth by looking at the pain of sexual assault victims

Deshpande explores this theme through a play-within-a-play technique
Deshpande explores this theme through a play-within-a-play technique

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Makarand Deshpande is among the most prolific writers of our times. And it’s not hard to see why. Prithvi Theatre’s calendar for one, is peppered with upcoming shows by Deshpande, who is also a known actor and director.

While the world slowed down during the pandemic, Deshpande was penning play after play—Gandhi, Krishna, and Buddha are some of his latest works. Deshpande finds inspiration both in the present and the past. At the moment, he is writing a play, which is set in the backdrop of war.

Deshpande’s latest, currently on view at the Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, today, is a play on sexual assault, titled simply Balatkar Please Stop It! “I considered other poetic names, but it felt like cheating,” says the founder of Ansh Theatre.

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An important question lies at the crux of this play, “Can anyone commit rape?” “I wanted to explore if balatkar is a mindset or a temporary distortion within a human being. Can anyone commit it? Is there a certain percentage of people in society who can commit this heinous crime? If so, why are the rest, the majority, unable to stop them?” asks Deshpande.

He investigates this through a play-within-a-play technique. In the story, a theatre company is preparing to perform a play on International Women's Day on rape. It involves research into real crimes, and it is the process that forms the first act.

“What happens to actors when they work in a play like this? What happens when the subject (of assault) is no longer at a distance but has become part of your life?” says Deshpande.

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The story proceeds further through a deaf and mute protagonist, who is a victim of sexual assault. At this point, Deshpande as he typically does, dives into mythology. “The girl, who is undergoing trauma, is a Krishna devotee. So, I wonder aloud if Krishna can help her?” Deshpande says.

This isn’t the first time Deshpande has written a play around a central female character. His earlier play, Kasturi, was a story of a woman’s self-discovery and her discomfort with her own sexuality. He admits that it wasn’t a single incident or case that inspired the play being staged. Rather, it was a need to address the subject.

The second half of the play takes a turn to come closer to reality. There is dramatisation of a rape case that involves an Adivasi woman. “We come across a lawyer, who has been successful in defending alleged sexual assaulters in the past,” explains Deshpande.

About the creative call of dramatising sexual assault, Deshpande is quick to point out that he uses the technique of mime to allude to the crime. “Films tend to go close to reality by showing brutality. Here, we do it without that using mime. It will have a greater impact on the audience,” he says.

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Interestingly, Deshpande also addresses the question of marital rape, though he admits its timing with the Delhi High Court’s split verdict on the matter is purely co-incidental.

As one would imagine, rehearsals weren’t easy, especially for women. While a formal sensitivity training was not conducted, Deshpande admits that there were times when he would take a call to not rehearse the final scene. “We had breakdowns in rehearsals every now and then. These were emotions the actors weren’t used to. Most of us have only been bystanders in the past. But, over time, performing the important play turned into a mission for the actors,” he says.

Similarly, those who come to watch, Deshpande believes, will return changed human beings. “It will make them aware, and it will change them fundamentally. Whether it is a victim, an accused, or a bystander,” he says.

Balatkar Please Stop It! Is being staged at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, on 15 May, 6 pm and 9 pm.

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