Play review

A play in New York tells tales of two women from India that 'need to be told'

In 'Two Women Talking', the actors share memories, laughter, anxieties and their darker encounters with Indian culture.

One rainy fall evening in Brooklyn, two women walk out onto a small stage and stare at the audience. They stand in comfortable silence for several minutes – until the short-haired woman in the blue and white kurta begins to talk.

At her boarding school in Connecticut, she says, three of her suitemates held her down on the bathroom floor, and then proceeded to shave her arms and legs with a razor. They left her cut and bleeding on the tiles. She was 13.

Several members of the audience noticeably gasp.

On stage, the other woman does not react. She watches her fellow presenter, absorbs her words without comment, lets the silence expand.

The two actors are Monsoon Bissell and Benaifer Bhadha. And in Two Women Talking, they are playing roles they have trained for all their lives – themselves.

Piercing stories

For 75 minutes, we watch and listen as they roam across the landscapes of their lives spent in Mumbai, Hartford, London, New York, trading stories in a messy chronology. The stories are often harrowing, jagged with feeling, but the women inhabit them fully, letting the memories subsume them. “I try to hold my mother’s hand, she pulls away, I try to hold my mother’s hand, she pulls away,” Bhadha repeats in a small, bewildered voice, her feet twisting into the pigeon-toed stance of a child.

These stories are not safe for work – or for the drawing room for that matter. There are secrets here, the gut-twisting anxieties and toxic self-loathing that we try not to think about. In one story, Bhadha rages in the bathroom, her hands twisting the roll of flesh at her waist as she shouts “I hate you, I hate you” at her image in the mirror. About to undergo an operation, Bissell begs her doctor: “Can I keep my nipples? I like my nipples.”

Every story cuts deep, all the more potent because it is true. What makes the performance astounding is that it is not a performance – not in the usual sense. This is semi-scripted storytelling, live, improvised every evening. We are watching minimalist theatre, drama pared down to its essence, intimate, unsparingly human. On display are fraught encounters with memory, sparked in the moment. The audience, recast as witnesses, are invited to listen, even if the illicit thrill of eavesdropping on secrets feels uncomfortable. As Bissell explains, “The listening shapes the telling, and the telling shapes the listening.”

Nowadays, distracted by our devices and schedules, we have forgotten how to listen. On stage, the actors revive this lost art. No one rushes to fill pauses in the monologues with advice or opinions. As one speaks, the other listens, never breaking eye contact.

Indian bond

When they talk, their stories shimmer with startling details. The critic James Wood’s phrase, “better noticers of life”, comes to mind. I feel the straight backs of chairs in prissy boarding schools against my neck, smell the camphor in the depths of Bissell’s grandfather’s closet. When Bhadha describes her substance abuse, I feel the dry scrape of the pills in my throat.

Then there is India. The country binds the women together, and it is everywhere. In stories of cosy afternoons spent with tea and steaming samosas in the company of large, loving families, as well as in the darker encounters with a culture, where, as Bissell tells me later, “girls are often told to shut up”. When they stray from culturally expected ways, there is a price to pay in guilt, in strained relationships. When Bissell comes out as a lesbian, her mother shuts her down and turns away, refuses to acknowledge or engage with her daughter’s sexuality.

But, as Bissell says, “These are stories that no one tells, but need to be told.”

Raw connections

Watching these stories spill out, it is easy to believe that Bissell and Bhadha are old friends, performing a comfortable friendship. At one point, Bhadha says, “I have never had a relationship like this.” Watching the women interact, that sentiment is not hard to believe – not even when we learn that they met for the first time only a year ago. By the time they started, under Dan Milne’s sympathetic, unobtrusive direction, to ready the piece for the stage, they had spent weeks in Manhattan coffee shops, telling each other stories.

Even after a year, there are surprises. Twice in the evening, Bissell exclaims: “Benaifer, you never told that story before.”

Like the stories, the relationship comes under scrutiny too. In a particularly tense moment, Bhadha accuses Bissell of hurting her, dismissing her as “not being Indian enough”. In one of the most moving moments of the play, Bissell struggles to apologise, at one point asking Bhadha: “Are you going to help me out here?” When she refuses, Bissell stumbles on alone. We watch the relationship evolve, experience their struggle to accept each other, warts and all.

The yearning to connect fully with another is one we all recognise. Yet the openness with which these actors deal with each other is almost painful.

Still, this is precisely why Two Women Talking succeeds. It urges audiences to reengage with listening. The reactions of the audience, their gasps of shock or laughter affect the telling. The safer the actors feel, the more they are willing to reveal.

What of audiences who might be more judgemental? Who might not approve of family laundry being so publicly aired? Would they ever take this show to India, I ask.

Bhadha concedes it might be difficult, that she is not sure if audiences in India are ready. She has already told the story about how her mother refuses to see the show or even acknowledge her success-even though she lives a few hours away. Bissell is more hopeful: “More than any place else, India needs to have two women who are clearly whole and healed tell stories.”

“There is power in two women talking,” she says.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.