The play “Agnes of God”, about an American nun who gives birth to a dead child and claims it is the result of a virgin conception has been made into a film and has played all over the world. It was performed in Mumbai two decades ago. But now it has run afoul of the Church and of self-proclaimed activists and its first performance on Monday is in jeopardy.
The highest Catholic body of the western region – the Archdiocese – has issued a strong statement against the play and the manner in which it was advertised – “The screaming headlines and life-size cut outs of religious sisters seem to portray them as characters lacking in integrity and guilty of cover-up of infanticide. Such a depiction will lower the esteem for nuns in the eyes of children to whom nuns impart knowledge and human values. This is totally unfair to our very many Religious Sisters who are working selflessly with dedication and generosity. We deplore this.” At the same time, it says it does not clamour for in bans of literary works.
The Catholics Bishop’s Conference however has dashed off letters to the Home Minister Rajnath Singh asking for a ban since it offends the religious sentiments of the community. “Why write to the Home Minister about a play-as though there are no other bigger problems in the country,” says Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, whose company Poor Box Productions was producing the play.
The Archdiocese’s statement sends out a strong message to the community that the play is objectionable and will have an impact. In the past, movies and plays such as Jesus Christ Superstar, the Last Passion of the Christ and even Da Vinci Code have angered Christians. In the 1970s, Alyque Padamsee showed his controversial musical Jesus Christ Superstar to senior bishops in Bombay and added an extra song after which the play was “approved.”
Earlier this week, on the eve of the opening, Mody-Kotwal was busy working on her play Sister Agnes, she got a call from the manager of the theatre where it was to open. The theatre was cancelling its booking, because the “nuns were unhappy with it.” The theatre is in Sophia College, which is run by the Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “It sent us into a tizzy, because we had paid an advance and now had to look for an alternative space at short notice,” Mody-Kotwal told the Wire. The same play had been performed at the theatre two decades ago. Kotwal immediately tried to speak to someone in charge and after many tries, got a nun on the line. ”She was very rude and did not tell us anything.”
Joseph Dias, who runs the Catholic Secular Forum, also declared he was going to get the play stopped. He has in the past rushed to express outrage on behalf the city’s Catholics on a wide variety of movies, such as Da Vinci Code and Kya Kool Hain Hum and issues. He objects to the play because, according to him, “The life of a nun is a sacred subject,they live their lives devoted to service and commodifying their lives for ticket sales offends me.” “You have to understand that we must question whether India is ready for this kind of content as morality differs here and in the west,” he told The Wire.
Kotwal’s son Kaizaad, who has directed the play spoke to Dias, who said the play was offensive to Catholics. “He also appeared to be very interested in the economics of putting up a theatre production, including whether it would make a lot of money,” Kotwal said.
With the opening night cancelled and huge financial losses staring them in the face, the Kotwals approached the police and leading members of the Catholic community and tried to get an alternative theatre booking. The play is scheduled to open next Monday at an alternative theatre, but Dias has already indicated that he plans to get a court injunction to stop the play from opening.
Kaizaad Kotwal has asked for police protection for himself and the cast, including his mother. Though the police have promised it will not allow the play to be stopped, Mody-Kotwal is a bit nervous: “the police says if there is a court order we can do nothing.” There is also no saying how the government will react.
Agnes of God is an American play about a nun who gives birth to a dead child and insists it was the result of a virgin conception. There is a clash between the nun, the Mother Superior and a psychiatrist. It was made into a film in 1985 starring Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft. It has played on stage around the world. “I loved the play and in fact the suggestion that I do it came from a Catholic friend,” says Mody-Kotwal. In Mumbai’s theatre circles, she is known as the person who has been staging the one-woman play “Vagina Monologues” for the past 13 years – “in English and Hindi” – and she says she has never faced any form of protest or objection.
Mody-Kotwal says she is worried about the financial losses she will face since she had planned to perform the play till April and made investments accordingly. “But we have put in our effort and our passion and who will compensate that?”