The community hall on a lane at Beasant Nagar in Chennai almost felt like home on the lazy Sunday evening. It was rather meant to be. The first thing that strikes you about the theatre performance on the evening of December 11 is that is features women wearing nighties. And that is just the beginning.
Mobile Girls Koottam: Working Women Speak is a Tamil play that was developed alongside a book of the same name by Madhumita Dutta. The book was an interpretation of podcasts and research. While the doctoral research was done by Madhumita Dutta, the podcasts were done by her and they play's director Sam PC. The book is a searing document of conversations with some women who worked in the Nokia factory near Chennai, on perhaps everything under the sun. The play, Sam says, was written along with three women factory workers, Kalpana, Lakshmi and Beula. In a sense, the play was also a translation of the dreams of those factory women.
The play opens with the women in nighties talking about seemingly random things yet their words open up profound questions. Employees of an assembling unit in a mobile phone factory, the women live together in a rented house, and their daily conversations lead to deep questions. Why should a man be troubled at the sight of a woman in a nighty at a shop? Why are sanitary napkins wrapped in black packets by those who sell them? Why aren’t there any roadside tea shops where women could hang out without being judged? The conversations are also about menstruation, their experience, and how different it would be if men bled. They also muse on unions in the workplace and their own political rights.
The seemingly innocuous questions discussed over tea, biscuits, bajjis and hearty laughs reveal a deep, long-running discrimination. Each woman has her own story. If Satya wanted to be a cop, for Kalpana a job in Chennai is a way to escape her father's harassment. Drawn from diverse backgrounds, the women – almost all from rural Tamil Nadu - bond over the discrimination they have faced. They share the common pain of an oppressive work atmosphere that hardly allows them a break. The conversations are their own breathing spaces. And then, they share a dream – of setting up a non-judgmental space, like a tea shop only by women, open only to men who are accompanied by women.
The women – played by Aparna as Kalpana and Zoro, Selvi as Lakshmi, Nimmy as Abhinaya and Atchaya as Satya – find themselves at a crossroads when they hear that the factory at which they have been working will soon shut. They now bond over grief, over the potential loss of some kind of freedom the city had given them yet redeem themselves over their shared dream. The play could, perhaps, have delved deeper into workplace issues. Even menstruation is discussed in the larger context and not as an issue in an oppressive work atmosphere like the factory.
During the hour-long play, the actors establish a sense of intimacy with the audience. Lakshmi begins by casually engaging with the audience while making tea for her roommates. Throughout the play, the women offer biscuits and bajjis to the viewers, and even biryani at the end of it. There perhaps couldn’t be a better way to end the play, than with biryani from the Trans Community Kitchen in Chennai.
“I realised that food is as central a character as any of the women in the play and this linked back to their dream of owning a tea shop together,” says the director Sam PC. On her trips to Kanchipuram along with Madhumita when the latter was doing her research, Sam recalls how the “room that knew pain and confusion was filled with a laughter”. “Humour led us to explore. Tea kept us together. Biryani became a collective obsession. All of this, while the TV blared serials, songs and comedy scenes at us.”
Most importantly, Mobile Girls Koottam speaks about the importance of space – a room of one’s own – where women could exercise their agency. It speaks about the importance of women’s autonomy and the lack of it. It speaks about the importance of becoming political, when exploitation is the norm. It speaks about how sisterhood could help not just dream but heal too.
Soon enough, Mobile Girls Koottam will travel across Tamil Nadu. “We intend to have performances across the state. Most of them will be in community venues,” says Sam.