She’s a celebrity hairdresser and one of the strongest voices of woman empowerment in the country. For years Sapna Bhavnani has been associated with numerous NGOs, events and drives to help women find a voice.
But why did she feel the need to do what she has been doing? A massive part of the reason became clear when the play Nirbhaya was staged in India for the first time.
The play helped Sapna face the truth about a gruesome incident that happened to her many, many years ago when she was living in the US. She was 24 when Sapna was gang raped on the eve of Christmas. She was on her way back after a solitary drinking session at the bar.
Whenever Sapna would think about the incident, she would never call it “rape” in her head. This went on for over 20 years. Until of course the play happened. Directed by Yael Farber, Nirbhaya, the play, revolves around the horrific Delhi gang rape incident of December 2012. With that as the nucleus, the play weaves in four real life stories of women who have suffered sexual violence. True to the style of testimonial theatre, the survivors themselves act out the play, and Sapna is one of them.
“Mind is a wonderful thing. It can forget whatever you want it to. I could never say the word ‘rape’ to myself. Because of that, it was almost like it never happened, except that it did. I was living a lie. I was fighting an internal battle — am I a victim or a survivor?” Sapna says.
When Poorna Jagannathan told her that they were auditioning for the play, Sapna helped them get Sneha Gowde on board, who is a survivor of domestic violence. “I still couldn’t bring myself to tell my story. It was the second time when Poorna said they are looking for a fourth testimony, that’s when I realised, maybe it’s time. I asked her: Should I audition? She said, ‘of course, why didn’t you all this while!’ That’s how it all began.”
But Sapna still had a long way to go. “I was having a Skype session with Yael and I told her the story in my usual fun style. I told her I was wearing heels and ‘kill-me-red-lipstick (words changed). I even told her that at least the boys were cute. I said everything without saying ‘rape’ once. Yael was not amused. She cut to the chase. She said, ‘You don’t hear yourself. Do you understand what happened?’ The conversation took a serious graph. I thought I was being the smart one. But Yael just told me what it was. I was gang raped.”
Because she was living a lie for so long, Yael thought it would be most difficult to break Sapna down. “But on day one of rehearsals, I was the first one to be completely broken down. She expected me to be the last. When I was on stage for the first time, telling my story to 600 people at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, everyday I would relive what had happened to me. It was like everyday on stage I was raped. Then I would leave, do some retail therapy and go to bed. That went on.” But that changed as the play continued to be staged across the world. “Now I am a more confident person. At first it was like, oh my god I have to tell my story because I have promised to. Now, I am actually ready to tell my story and I will go more public with my story,” she says.
Now that her story is out, Sapna is often asked, what took her so long to tell it. “People automatically turn survivors into heroes. Personally, I don’t like that. I didn’t want to be made a hero based on something so horrific that happened to me that I had no control over. I wanted people to gain respect for me by living a life that I preached on women empowerment. I got inked all over to break the idea of the traditional Indian woman. That’s just a small part of it, besides my work with NGOs and so on.”
Sapna’s mother is the only one in her family who knows about it, although she is yet to watch the play. “My brothers stay abroad and neither of them has a clue. I called my mom half an hour before my first performance and told her. I had only said ‘rape’ and didn’t even get to the ‘gang’ part of it, when she completely broke down. Like any mother, she said, why tell it to the world. I told her I had to, and she understood. I am blessed to have a mother like her. Right from childhood, she has raised me to get up, never showed any sympathy when I fell down. If my mom is in the audience, it would make me emotional but I would still want to tell the story.”