We Are All Born Equal, Says Mona Ambegaonkar

When sexual volition of women is under attack, what chance does alternate sexuality stand in a state that criminalises it? How do young people with alternate sexuality feel within a restrictive, didactic social structure? How do their parents feel when confronted by the truth of their children\'s sexuality? 

Published: 09th June 2014 08:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th June 2014 08:39 AM   |  A+A-

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BANGALORE: When sexual volition of women is under attack, what chance does alternate sexuality stand in a state that criminalises it? How do young people with alternate sexuality feel within a restrictive, didactic social structure? How do their parents feel when confronted by the truth of their children's sexuality? 

Late Marathi playwright Chetan Datar wrote Ek Madhav Baug, a few years ago to address questions that continue to stay relevant till date.

Mona Ambegaonkar, TV, theatre and film actor, director and writer, who has been an outspoken activist for LGBT rights picked the play a few years ago and translated it in English and Hindi.

 She tours the country with it, often staging it in education institutions and corporate spaces because that is where discrimination can be the most debilitating.

She often brings the play to Bangalore and was in the city recently and chatted with City Express. 

The law continues to dictate sexual choices...

The play's relevance has increased, to my mind, given that the current ruling party is closely affiliated to the RSS and its leaders have often voiced their intolerance to sexual minorities in public and through the press. Also, Section 377 makes all  sexual minorities vulnerable to exploitation and threats and fear tactics, even if they are heterosexual.

What was the starting spark for this play?

The play had two births. One was in 1998 when it was read in the office of the Humsafar Trust — which continues to push it into the public arena even today and also uses it as an advocacy tool for sexual minorities  — and the other was at Kashish International Queer Film Festival.

The first time the play was read, the playwright was alive and the play was very relevant but perhaps ahead of its time. It was also read in the language it was originally written in — Marathi.

The second time it came into the public arena, I put up a performance/reading of it in Hindi at the film festival, having translated it from the original Marathi manuscript, along with Vivek Anand, the CEO of Humsafar Trust.

It has been translated by me into English as well and I premiered the English version at the United Nations AIDS Conference in Washington DC in 2012. 

The times have changed and the playwright is no longer alive but the play has only grown in its relevance, given the urgent desire for sexual minorities to stake their claim to full and fair citizen-hood in this country and all over the world.

Describe what attracted you to the subject...

As an actress addicted to the stage, a solo performance is like blood to a carnivore or food to the hungry!

So the fact that the play was offered to me was one of the best things that has ever happened in my career. That I could also translate it into two languages was like chocolate sauce on premium vanilla ice-cream.

But above all it gave voice to the war-cry of Human Rights for all- that all of us are born equal in the eyes of nature and we all have the right to be who we are without apology or fear - in a way that touched all those who saw it performed.

Nothing can be more attractive than the opportunity to make a difference to the world we inhabit, to bring pride and courage and freedom to those who have been unsure and afraid and invisible. In this play I have that unique privilege.

Do sum up your work with this issue...

It has been five years and close to 50 shows, each one painfully organised, through financial crunches and hostility, or worse, indifference from venues and people with the power to give space and funding for the play. But each show is followed by reactions that fuel the energy that has made me go on, even when there is no monetary benefit from it.

Do talk about some memorable moments of this journey..

The most recent incident was at one of the two back to back shows I did in Bangalore on May 28. One of the audience members had seen the play a couple of years ago and had come again to see it.

He stood up after the show and told the audience that after the first time he had seen it he had 'come out' to his friends and family and as a  result he had now found a life full of friends and joy and support and understanding along with the expected adversities. Above all, he was happy to be free.

At another show, a married man had stood up and told the audience that he will be going home to tell his wife and children the truth, that he was gay.

When I asked him if he was aware that this may mean a huge upheaval in his life, he replied that it would be better than living the lie and cheating the people who he cared about so much. A woman who had come with her daughter for another show and had sat through it looking very upset and closed, stood up and told me that her daughter was lesbian and thanked me for making her understand and promised her daughter that she would never be ashamed of her again. A group of about 7-8 men in their sixties and seventies at another show said that if they had the access to a play like this in their youth, they may perhaps have been able to make a difference to their own lives and those of other people they knew. These men were not all gay themselves.

People cry or heckle me or are curious - no show has left anyone untouched or indifferent. The bigots are also as clearly revealed as are those who have real empathy.

How easy or tough is it for you to reenact the same emotions and feel what the protagonist feels?

It is never easy to undertake a journey as complex as the one in this play. And to do it in the skin of another character is harder still. To make your own the experiences of another, in this case a fictional character that is also real for she is alive in the mothers of many LGBTQI people, is never easy.

However, now she is one of the many people who inhabit my subconscious, being amongst the characters who have decided to stay with me forever. She is not difficult to access in Hindi or English any more, even if I don’t rehearse the play before a show.

 Why do you think work spaces need exposure to material like this?

In a world so interlinked and inter-dependent for its growth and well-being, socially and economically, inclusion is the only way forward. Without inclusion and awareness and honesty in our private and personal lives, ‘good governance’ is and will always be an inoperative phrase. 

 What are the latest things you are working on?

I have taken on another play where I enact two skits of 10 minutes each, playing a blind woman in New York the day the Twin Towers were brought down in one, and the publisher of a Gardening magazine mistakenly kidnapped by a writer who wants his play published in the other.

However, since this will not keep the home-fires burning and put food on the table, I am in the job market presently i.e.. I am looking  for a paying role!

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