Atrocities against women quickly become statistics, numbers and percentages that are quoted at seminars and discussions. The statistics never really reveal the true picture. But when a director and an actor-singer decide that it is high time we as a people face the music, they might be perceived to be sharp or blunt about the subject. Or maybe both. Perhaps that is why C Sharp C Blunt, an interactive play by Flinntheater, Berlin, and performed by artist M.D. Pallavi from Bangalore, takes a dig at the way women are expected to mould themselves into an image shaped by patriarchal cultural and social programming. The play explores what it means to be a professional working woman in the entertainment industry. Directed by Sophia Stepf and enacted by singer-actor Pallavi, the witty and satirical play raises questions about differences in gender perceptions and upbringing through Shilpa, an interactive and user-friendly mobile phone app. Singing in her sugary husky voice and shaking her hips when you want her to, Shilpa is programmed to be an Indian male’s dream girl. The next update of the app changes the equation. Pallavi plays Shilpa. In an e-mail interview, the actress talk about the play
As a singer and actress, how difficult or easy was it to play Shilpa, the app?
Shilpa is the ‘perfect singer’ application. So, it would be difficult for a non-singer to do the nuances and variations that are in Shilpa’s presets. And it would be difficult for a non-actor to improvise on stage and play off the audience. So, yes. It did help that I can sing as well as act.
How were you able to relate to your character and the play?
This is a devised play. We drew from our personal experiences to improvise. There are four main characters in this play. Shilpa, the App, The programmer (who designs the App), singer Madhu (who is the voice of the App), and the actress (who is the body of the App). Apart from the App and the programmer, I do identify myself a lot with the singer and actress.
Social and cultural conditioning have moulded the image of the woman as Sati-Savitris or the other extreme of the vamp. What is your take on the issue?
Yes. Our women are either portrayed as the Sati-Savitris (good women) or the cigarette-smoking vamps (bad women). They are either objectified or deified. They are either homemakers or home-breakers. Singers have to be able to sing at the highest pitch with the sweetest voice. Actresses are required to be fair, slim, slender, subservient with a sweet voice and a dumb but sweet nature, where she will be blind to all the sexist remarks that are thrown her way.
Probably because of exposure and more access to information from around the world, these days increasingly we see more and more women being vocal about their discomfort with these portrayals. But we still have a long way to go.
You had played a significant role in the award-winning Gulabi Talkies. And now Shilpa. How do you select your roles considering that you wear several caps at the same time?
I try and do work that excites me, with people that I admire and look up to. It was an honour to work with Girish Kasaravalli in Gulabi Talkies. Sophia and I had worked together in a huge collaborative production, Boy With A Suitcase. A year later she proposed this idea for a solo performance. It was something I had never done before. The way we worked on the piece and devised it was a fascinating experience for me.
Have social and popular media worsened the situation by playing to the gallery with the image of the 'good obedient woman' and the super mom?
I think it has. Bikes, banks, credit cards commercials are done with men as models; kid-products, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, toothpaste and hair dye commercials are done with women. A woman is supposed to behave a ‘certain’ way. And the same goes for men. Men have to be responsible. They have to be the bread winners. The woman has to feed the family. She has to be the gentle one. These stereotypes have been used over and over again by the popular media for decades now. And to get rid of these and look at a man/woman with a fresh perspective would be difficult. We need to let go of these crutches and be more honest in our storytelling.
What is your personal opinion about Shilpa and her songs and her sweet sacharine voice (when she is programmed ) and her own voice, when she gets the choice?
I have great fun on stage when I play Shilpa. This is an interactive piece. Shilpa the App is used by the audiences. They give the inputs and she performs according to the inputs. What I enjoy most in this part is the way I can play with the audiences’ expectations. The App is expected to perform. The App always obeys. For me as the performer it is exciting to see how the audiences react when they realise that this App has started disobeying.