Theatre: Mallika Taneja’s Allegedly – uncomfortable,–igniting vital conversations around the intersection of sexual violence

What: Allegedly by Dehli based theatre artist, Mallika Taneja
When: Allegedly was streamed live from India to The National Arts Festival, South Africa, July 24, 2021
How to see a performance: Contact Mallika Taneja on Instagram  

Allegedly by Mallika Taneja, a Delhi-based theatre artist, is intensely uncomfortable theatre which wrestles with sexual assault and violence: “Allegedly seeks to spark conversations at the intersection of sexual violence, justice and our personal predicaments.” The play puts the “intersection” forcibly into focus. In the process of “sparking” conversations, the narrative triggers many questions. Those triggers are not easy to contemplate and may divert us from the central narrative. Many “allegations” are dismissed by the legal system, because of lack of “evidence” and “fact”. What happens when we are not able to tabulate “evidence”? Can “feelings” become fact?

Women are conditioned and expected to apologize and inevitably that is what happens when an “alleged” violation is raised and this is conveyed palpably, in Allegedly. Women are muted; persuaded to keep quiet. Often their friends do not believe what they are saying and/or question their accounts. If friends have doubts, what recourse would a woman have by going through a legal route? Memory is fallible. We don’t always remember details- what we were wearing; exactly who was in the room, where the food table was situated. Taneja’s script declares its position that we are hearing from the woman’s point of view. The alleged perpetrator is not in the picture. He is somewhere on social media, posting about yoga and Namaste. The chorus of women, in their Zoom bubbles, point out that we have so many problems right now. They reference the pandemic. They talk about that they are together, albeit on Zoom. And here we are listening to an account of an “alleged” violation that took place 16 years ago. They urge us switch off our phones, stop talking and to listen to the story.

Adjacent to the chorus of Zoom bubbles, we see a woman (Mallika Taneja) being cross-examined by another woman (Aditee Biswas) – her friend. She could be a lawyer or a journalist. She has pen and paper and is there to try and make sense of the “alleged” story. Language is critical from the get-go with a questioning of how we pose situations and the adjectives use. It was an incestuous gathering says the woman. The investigator suggests– “let’s rather use close-knit”. Words matter. I find the script remarkable in how it mirrors what a defendant has to endure in a formal court situation. Inevitably, a defendant is asked yes/no questions. He kissed you? Yes? You kissed him back. Yes? And so on. Then it becomes a no. But, he was under the influence of alcohol? You have told us that. Yes? That is another yes.  You were also under the influence of alcohol but to a lesser degree? That is another yes. Then, within that, what was the colour of your underwear. Just answer the question. Why does it matter? If it doesn’t matter, why won’t you disclose the colour? Okay, it was red. Okay- and what does that signify? Red? Saucy? Seduction? The complainant gets drawn into a web of victim blaming and shaming. As viewers, we are diverted with the image of red underwear which has nothing to do about the “alleged” sexual assault, up for consideration. And what about “risk”? That is raised- when two people are enjoying themselves, there may be alcohol and then things go from yes to no. But why is it predictably the woman, who is seen to bear the risk? That is brought into the narrative. The implication is that she should have known better to get into a shower with a virtual stranger. If she did that, then she knew the risk of it going “wrong”. One moment you are having fun and enjoying your life and then everything changes. Okay, but what about the man? Why is he not accountable? Why is it all on the woman to “prove” the “allegation? Women are shunted away –admonished to keep quiet and not cause trouble. Allegations tend to be pushed aside because of lack of evidence; because it is just too hard to open a case; because women lack power to pursue “alleged” perpetrators.

Many of us who have watched court cases, screened on TV have seen how complainants get hammered by legal counsel with a barrage of yes/no questions. Issues are diverted by details which have nothing to do with the case. This is why many women (and men, people of every gender affiliation) do not pursue a legal route in bringing alleged perpetrators to the book. Sometimes, enough “allegations” are believed and a case goes ahead. That often leads to a string of accusations surfacing- the cases of those that were not “believed”. Then there is space for #MeToo but it doesn’t happen enough. Most “alleged” cases do not get attention.

Allegedly, by Mallika Taneja went out live on Zoom last night, July 24, 2021, from India to The National Arts Festival [NAF], South Africa. Allegedly was performed in theatre spaces, before the pandemic – commissioned by Zubaan, an independent feminist publishing house, in India as part of its project, ‘Stepping Stones’, examining “sexual violence and impunity all over India.” The online adapted version of Allegedly has been co-produced by Beursschouwburg Brussels, Kunstencentrum Vooruit Ghent and Khoya Paya. The online staging works remarkably well. When I saw that it was going out on Zoom, I groaned. My thoughts: “Please, enough Zoom. I cannot deal with another play with protagonists in Zoom bubbles.” I was in for a surprise – thrilled by what was to unfold on my screen. Allegedly, has been impeccably designed and choreographed for the online medium. Each screen bubble is set as a scene/space; dressed as one might expect in a theatre context. Conversations are set up between and across the spaces and figures in each space.  Essentially, Allegedly is a two hander – the woman telling her story of sexual assault to her friend/journalist/lawyer.  The chorus of women, urging us to be quiet and give time to listen and consider the narrative; its issues and complexities. There is chit-chat. They sing a wonderful catchy song – “happy birthday to you… will Twitter hashtag you ….” Fabulous.

And at the end, what does the complainant want? Justice? An apology? To be heard? To share her story as a cautionary tale? What do we all want? We hear from each woman in the chorus what they want- to not have to wear masks; to be loved and to love; to be safe.  The leitmotif: Whose side are you on? Do you think this is worth your time – to listen to this story?

The dramatic tension is heightened between the two women raking through the story in their Zoom bubbles and the chorus in their screens. Watching this work made me think about a one-hander that I saw online at NAF 2020. I then saw it on-stage, in 2021. In the theatre, I was distracted from the narrative on stage by my peripheral vision – by the flicking of the Exit sign, by patrons who had pulled their masks down. Watching a piece like Allegedly, online, performed live on Zoom, focuses one’s attention on the narrative, without any distractions. With headphones on, one’s gaze is on the screen. Am I saying that the Zoom incarnation of Allegedly is “better” than seeing it in a theatre? No, I am not. I am saying that Taneja has designed the piece to go out online, and that experience in itself, makes for immersive and engaging viewing. Each online Zoom performance goes out live, includes a poll of questions, flashed onto the screen, at intervals. The results of the poll are revealed afterwards. Some of the questions make “sense” (would we warn our daughters to be careful) and others I found unfathomable. We are asked if the woman was “a good rape victim”. I have no idea what that means and no way of giving a yes/no answer to that question. This question made me feel uncomfortable and uneasy and I think that it is meant to that. In court, everything tends to be reduced to yes/no.

As the chorus points out, there are many problems in the pandemic world. Sexual assault/violence continues and should be addressed – even an “alleged” situation 16 years ago. Theatre provides a safe space for conversations and to share stories. Allegedly is not only an important issue driven play but as a theatre piece, it thrashes out a multitude of issues with fierceness and determination to try and dissect through knotty intersections. Bravo to Mallika Taneja, cast and creative team and to the National Arts Festival, for facilitating the live streaming of this important play, during Covid, year two.

Mallika Taneja’s Allegedly – online adaption of the play by the Delhi based theatre artist. The play was live streamed on Zoom, from India on July 24, 2021 to The National Arts Festival, South Africa.
Allegedly performed by: Aditee Biswas and Mallika Taneja

Aman Mohammadi
Anahita Sarabhai
Bonita Rajpurohit
Deepshikha Mishra
Drishti Chawla
Gunjan Gupta
Hansa Thapliyal
Katyayini Pant
Neelambari Bhattacharya
Ritika Singh
Simrat Harvind
Tanima Thinley Chodon

Design and Direction: Mallika Taneja
Production Manager: Meghna Singh Bhadauria
Executive Producer: Khoya Paya
Scripting Associate: Rajesh Nirmal with Meghna Singh Bhadauria
Music: Samar Grewal
Project Advisor – Hansa Thapliyal
Legal Advisor: Mini Saxena, The Consent Project

Rehearsal Director for Chorus: Anahita Sarabhai

Chorus Developed with Dipali, Eeshta Malhotra, Neelambari Bhattacharya and Tanima. The piece was first commissioned by Zubaan, an independent feminist publishing house, as
part of their project ‘Stepping Stones’, that looked at sexual violence and impunity all over
India. The adapted version of Allegedly has been co-produced by Beursschouwburg Brussels, Kunstencentrum Vooruit Ghent, and Khoya Paya.