The play Project Darling posesbold questions about female sexuality

Theatre director Sharanya Ramprakash tries to expose inherent gender biases

February 20, 2024 04:04 pm | Updated February 23, 2024 04:23 pm IST

From Project Darling

From Project Darling | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Sharanya Ramprakash’s Project Darling is an incisive study of female sexuality at the crossroads of censorship and culture in India. Presented by actor and director Prakash Raj, it was recently staged at Adishakti and Indianostrum Theatre in Puducherry. 

The play, supported by the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), brought alive on stage some bitter, uncomfortable social realities about female sexuality that are deeply rooted in our society. But, the format allowed for humour and punchlines amid everyday life and social engagements. 

The play is a strong social commentary

The play is a strong social commentary | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Based on the stage life of veteran Kannada theatre actress Khanavali Chenni, who ruled the Kannada stage in the 1970s with her rib-tickling dialogues and sexual innuendo, the play traces the journey of a group of performers that set out on a search for Chenni.

While trying to find her, they stumble upon several other actresses who have their own stories to share. The seriousness of the play was appropriately balanced with some slapstick dialogues and bold questions pertaining to the societal attitude towards male and female sexuality. 

“Why can’t there be a training programme for marriage and sex?” “Why is a woman called a slut when she removes her top, but when a man does the same, he is revered as macho.” These lines that exposed society’s gender hypocrisy worked wonders in getting across the soul of the play.

Into the women’s world.

Into the women’s world. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Women and female bodies have been central to Kannada’s cultural imagination, from Igappa Hegede’s Vivaha Prahasana (1897) to Girish Karnad’s Nagamandala (1990). Theatre uses female sexuality to define cultural agency. However, Kannada theatre’s actual relationship with women as performers has been fraught with anxiety,” says Sharanya Ramprakash, adding: “I want to deconstruct the conventions of dramatic theatre to create somewhat more truthful expressions of our lived realities as actresses and women.”

Project Darling is also a research of sorts into the “bawdy” women or “sexual” clowns from the Kannada nataka genre. It also indirectly highlights the status quo of women in the Indian entertainment industry, where they are objectified and looked down upon. It also brings back memories of late artistes such as Gulab Bai, nautanki performer from Agra, Jaddanbai (mother of actor Nargis) of the Hindi film industry and Silk Smitha of Tamil cinema, and how they are still treated as sex objects. 

With the help of her eclectic stagecraft and a terrific ensemble of actors, Sharanya deftly presented the complexities of  traditional and contemporary theatre, vis-a-vis society. In the play, the perfect female character (as defined in the Natyasastra) is created on stage. And, she is loaded with the massive weight of cultural baggage! When an actor questions about consent, another retorts, “What consent? We have culture”. 

The director successfully balanced serious documentary sources with hilarious and brilliant theatricality — which the audience enjoyed.

The scenography and stagecraft were innovative. Props such as  cameras, photographs, a typewriter, a whiteboard, screens, puppets and masks and a chair did justice to the script. The musical score included the apt Game of Love and Kiss Me Tight. The brilliant team of actors included Shrunga BV (last seen in Mansore’s searing film 19.20.21), Surabhi Vashist, Shobana Kumari, Shashank Rajshekar and Matangi Prasan.

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