Jane Fonda and Marisa Tomei had never met Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal. But tonight they will perform with her in Eve Ensler's widely acclaimed play The Vagina Monologues in Mumbai.
Fonda and Tomei arrived in the city last night. Their performance takes place on Women's Day and is part of V-Day, which is a global movement to stop violence against girls and women. The V in V-Day stands for Victory, Valentine and Vagina.
"People think vagina is a dirty word. It's not," says producer-performer Kotwal. "The play is about separate, powerful stories. It's about changing mindsets."
Based on Ensler's interviews with over 200 women, the play salutes female sexuality and reveals the violations that women experience in their daily lives.
Ensler will also be in Mumbai tonight for the performance. Her new monologue called Jaadi [fat] which she wrote based on her conversation with an obese woman trying to lose weight in a gym in India, will be premiered at the show.
Produced by Kotwal and her Columbus, Ohio-based son Kaizaad, the cast includes Mahabanoo, theatre actor Dolly Thakore, Avantika Akerkar, television actor Jayati Bhatia and Sonali Mahimtura Sachdev.
Oscar winners Fonda and Tomei will be doing one or two monologues. Fonda performed for V-Day in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan last year. Tomei was the first celebrity to support the movement after it began in 1998, says Kaizaad Kotwal.
More than 200 stars have acted the Obie-award winning play so far. Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Glenn Close, Oprah Winfrey, Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Alanis Morissette, Calista Flockhart, Isabella Rossellini, Salma Hayek, Kylie Minogue and Meera Syal with a host of other women have played roles over the years.
Kotwal first saw the play in Atlanta, Georgia in November 2001 after Kaizaad had bought her a ticket. "When I saw it, I wanted to do it," she says just before a rehearsal in her apartment.
She met Ensler in America, obtained performance rights and staged it in Mumbai last year. But it was far from easy.
"Many theatres refused," she recalls, "many actors did not want to do it because of the title but I came across some committed actors."
A stage actress who has acted in Shirley Valentine, the Naseerudin Shah-directed A Romance for Ruby, Steel Magnolias, BBC radio's adaptation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and Merchant-Ivory's Cotton Mary, Kotwal says it is ironic that people do not say the word 'vagina' as if it were taboo in a country with a sexually forward thinking past.
"We have the most beautiful, erotic temples in Khajuraho and the Kama Sutra. I think men should see this play more than women. I tell people to listen to these stories and listen with respect."
There is a certain hypocrisy about progressive ideas, people are willing to see thinly veiled vaginas in fashion shows but are unwilling to discuss larger issues, says Kaizaad.
The producers feel The Vagina Monologues tells stories that embody the spirit of women, 'the essence of womankind. That very essence that is assaulted and rarely celebrated.'
The Indian cast, Kotwal says are confident and are not under any kind of pressure because of Fonda and Tomei's presence.
Thakore, one of the casting directors for the Oscar-winning Gandhi, has acted in plays like Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire and Gaslight.
Akerkar returned to Mumbai after spending many years in the US and has acted in Ashes To Ashes, Lunch Girls and Whatever You Say.
Bhatia, a student of Ebrahim Alkazi, has acted in Going Solo Part I, Mahatma vs Gandhi and in television serials Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki and Tu Tu Mein Mein.
Sachdev, an orthodontist decided to become an actor. She is the narrator or sutradhar of the play and has acted in The Witness.
In the rehearsal, they excel.
"Where are Jane and Marisa?" chuckles a jovial Thakore as she breezes in, telling the girls that she is looking svelte because she has to match up with the duo from Hollywood.
The women then sit down beside each other and begin Vaginaspeak.
The Vagina Monologues will be staged at the Tata Theatre in Mumbai on March 8 at 7 pm.