When I was about seven or eight, I remember being obsessed with Disney’s “Mulan”. We would go to my grandmothers house in Bangalore for summer break, and back then what existed were VCR players. We had just gotten the Mulan Cassette, and I saw it for the first time. A seven year old Jazz was instantly hooked into the powerful magical world of a woman who broke every stereotype to do what was right. I don’t use the word ‘obsession’ lightly over here; I would sit every single day and watch it. Every. Single. Day. For two months straight, and was in awe every time the movie rolled its end credits.
Mulan, is not your average Disney Princess, who needs a Prince Charming to come and save her. Set in ancient China, where protecting a family’s honour was the only thing that mattered; she broke away from convention, from comfort and from conformity to save her family and in the end (without giving away any spoilers) saved China. Mulan is fierce, and strong and determined. Her story arc revolves around her finding herself in ways she never knew existed. It has no ‘spells and magic wands’, but it’s perhaps one of the most magical movies I’ve ever seen.
Last month, I was invited to be the Artist in Residence for a 10 day theatrical production with Grades 5 - 8 of Alma Mater School in Jodhpur. I do this once a year, where we go and put up a musical - its great fun! This year, when we were planning the storyline to adopt, I saw the trailer for the live action remake of Mulan thats coming along; and the decision was instantly made.
When I do any performance with children, I don’t just hand them a script. Instead, it’s a lot of conversation that goes into why we are performing what we are performing. We had a two day immersion program where we spoke about Mulan and what it means to us. In the conversation, we were discussing about how a ‘woman’ disguised as a man to go and fight in the army, which prompted me to ask the question of why is it okay for men to do certain things and for women to not and that organically transformed into talking about stereotypes.
The insights that arose after that were truly incredible. The children opened up with such honesty about either being cast in a stereotype or stereotyping someone else.
One boy said ‘When I was a child, I liked to play with Barbies, but I was told only girls play with Barbies.” A girl said “I want to cut my hair really short but my mom said I will look like a boy.” “I used to cry openly, and then I was told i’m crying like a girl” said another boy who had consciously built a wall around him.
Thus, with that understanding the journey of ‘Shakti’ began. Everyday, we spoke about what we would do if we weren’t afraid of being stereotyped. We heard several poems about the same topic and deepen the understanding and the intention.
The performance was fantastic. I tried using a lot of subtle symbolism; in the scene where she has to get ready for a festival, her mother and friends are wrapping her up in pretty ‘pink’ drapes, but unknowing tying her up in the process. A lot of stagecraft was used - with multi imagery, projections, lighting and production aha’s, but in my opinion, what truly made the performance come alive was each one understanding why they were on stage. The kids were cheering each other on, with one simple belief: before we are women and men, we are humans first and we ALL deserve kindness and respect.
Thinking about this a little later on, I think we all have faced gender stereotypes, and we never speak about them openly. Random phrases are always thrown around - “Oh he drives like a woman.” If only conversations like this were encouraged earlier on, would we all become a little more mindful about the words we sometimes blatantly speak and actions we take.
It’s been a soul stirring creative journey, one that has started off 2020 with passion and creative fuel. To everyone out there - ask yourself that question - What would you do, if you weren’t afraid. And then - go out there, and do it!
Below, is a small ‘MAKING OF’ the production - if you have some time, have a look :)
Until the next one,