Actor Vidushi Mehra is making her directorial debut with the play Death And The Maiden, which was written by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman in 1990. It was first staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1991 and was subsequently made into a film of the same name in 1994. The play—a mystery drama—chronicles the life of a woman, Paulina Salas, who defies law and takes justice into her own hands when she encounters her rapist after 15 years. It also touches upon her relationship with her husband, skewed gender dynamics, and human misery. To get a better understanding of the story, we sat down for a chat with Vidushi Mehra who’s also co-producing and playing the role of the protagonist.
Q: Tell us about your directorial debut Death And The Maiden.
A: The story is set during a period of dictatorship in Chile, South America, and it revolves around three people: my character Paulina Salas, her husband Gerardo Escobar (played by actor and co-producer of the play, Samar Sarila), and Dr Roberto Miranda (played by actor Adhiraj Katoch). Paulina is a military prisoner who was raped and tortured in captivity by Dr Miranda, for three months, before being released. 15 years later, she coincidentally comes across her rapist which makes her take the law into her own hands even though her husband’s an influential lawyer and heads a committee directly run by the President of the country. She puts her rapists on trial in her own home, but is she justified? That’s for the audience to decide.
Q: Tell us about the two other primary characters of your play.
A: Paulina’s husband Gerardo (Escobar) is an activist-turned lawyer. Before he turned political, he was an anti-fascist who believed that if justice wasn’t handled properly or if it came through the right channels of the law, you wouldn’t really get justice. He was a revolutionary who turned in favour of the military government when he became a lawyer and that’s why there’s now an ideological clash between Paulina and Gerardo. He doesn’t do enough to help his wife because he’s ambitious and doesn’t want to tarnish his career. He’s a supremely selfish human being who loves and is apologetic about his wife’s situation but doesn’t do anything to fight for her. She, on the other hand, develops PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)—something most women experience when after going traumatic situations. Coming to Dr Miranda, he’s a dignified doctor who’s appointed by the government to conduct scientific experiments on people who are anti-government, anti-fascism, and anti-dictatorship. Before going down this path, he used to be a good man who’s forced to do bad things due to his circumstance. So, essentially, all the characters are grey including Paulina who doesn’t hand over her rapist to the police because she doesn’t trust them. She’s waited 15 years for this moment and now that her rapist is in her house, will she give up the opportunity? She wants to kill him but will she do it? I’m not telling you, you have to see the play!
Q: Why did you choose to begin your directorial venture with this play?
A: Three years ago, when Samar and I started working together, we wanted to produce this play but we were not ready because it required a certain level of commitment, craft, and understanding. However, this year, we started the dialogue again and even though there were several hindrances, we decided that we’ll produce it anyway. We had been looking at various people to direct it because I believe that direction and acting should remain separate. But unfortunately, we couldn’t find anyone who could take the play on and manage the actors and their vulnerabilities. That’s when Samar suggested that it’d be a good idea for me to direct this because it’s women-centric, has a certain pathos, and a strong voice. I was quite skeptical because it was a huge challenge to produce, direct, and act in the same play. But I took it on and it’s been a long struggle—right from getting the right actors on board and acquiring sponsorships, collaborations, and opportunities to raising funds and finalising the venue. And it’s all been worth it because today’s our opening night and we have an interesting story to share with the world.
Q: Death And The Maiden was written by Ariel Dorfman in 1990. How is it relevant in today's times?
A: It’s relevant because it discusses justice and raises pertinent arguments on dictatorship vs democracy. I mean, we had dictators like (Benito Amilcare Andrea) Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and (Ali) Khamenei. It also talks about rape, sexual politics, and the constant gender battle between man and woman. In addition to that, it’s also significant in light of the #MeToo movement, which has unfortunately lost its momentum but it keeps coming back whenever an influential man is accused of sexual harassment. In our play, Dr Miranda is that man, a well-renowned doctor who’s appointed by the government to hold trials. And then there’s Paulina’s husband. What does he do in her absence? Does he move on? Does he think she’s dead? If he’s in a position of power, what has he done to help her? When you watch the play, you’ll be able to connect with all of these plots and subplots because we all know Paulinas who’re dealing with one or more of these issues.
Q: Would you say the play's political messaging has parallels with the current political dynamics of the country?
A: No, it’s a simple story, based on human relationships but with a strong political backdrop that can’t be ignored, especially in the light of upcoming elections and the tense political scenario of the country. Having said that, I don’t want to get into a political debate because that’s the not the focus of the story. It’s about Paulina and her battle with injustice.
Q: Do you think Indian women will be able to relate to your character, Paulina, and her fight against injustice?
A: Yes, because even though we have kept our names integral to the author’s actual play, we have cut out all other cultural references. So, we could be playing three anonymous people with those names and it wouldn’t matter—they’re just become names in a play. The ethos, the pathos, the ideology, sentiments, and the emotional quality of the play are some things that everyone can relate to. In fact, I begin the play by saying that the story could be set in any time, and in an anonymous country with an anonymous culture, and would still be relevant and relatable.
Q: What can the audience expect from your play?
A: Well, I hope the audience is jittered in their seats. I hope they can relate to all three characters and feel compassion for them. I hope they feel the intensity of our acting and the hard work that has gone in into a project that’s so close to our hearts. Lastly, I hope the play and its characters will linger on their minds long after the curtains are drawn.
Q: What are your personal takeaways from the play? Has it affected you in any way? If yes, how?
A: Playing a character like Paulina is a huge responsibility because you have to be extremely careful, responsible, and sensitive to the case of rape. You have to bring out certain nuances without offending someone’s sensibilities. Being Paulina has taught me a great deal about myself, my weaknesses, and how I can be a better human being. I’ve also learned to be a kinder and more understanding human being because the play is about the human spirit and human conditions that all of us encounter at some point in our lives. Through this play, I also want to end gender battles and make people realise that we need to be humans first before boxing ourselves into various gender-based roles. And that’s my takeaway from the play—that we’re human beings first, men or women second. I want to applaud the human spirit through this play.
The play open on 2nd April and will run through 10th April at The Dhan Mill Compound in New Delhi. Go book your tickets now!