Indian Ensemble's latest play throws light on cyber human trafficking, desire in the digital world
Indian Ensemble’s recent play #supernova (written by Rahul Rai and directed by Abhishek Majumdar), which premiered on 3rd June 2017 at Goethe Institut in Bangalore, is a serious attempt to engage with questions in the context of global human trade.
The discourse on human trafficking as modern day slavery, especially concerning child trafficking, is a pretty straightforward one.
Unlike voluntary sex work which is more ambiguous, trafficking is both illegal and immoral from every perspective, be it the question of human freedom or the violence that a trafficked person undergoes. The laws are stringent against trafficking and so is the discourse against it.
However, global networks of human trafficking have only increased with the revolution in information and communication technology. It is a challenge which the policy makers and law enforcers have been struggling with persistently at the operational level, which at the same time has raised serious questions about the unconscious psyche of modern day societies.
With the constant pursuit to address the social evils of our times, we have ended up in establishing more norms and codes of morality and legality. However, with this ever increasing discursivity on the right and wrong norms of behavior, there is also a subterranean reaction to it in the form of increasing perversions, both of sexual and social nature.
Indian Ensemble’s recent play #supernova (written by Rahul Rai and directed by Abhishek Majumdar), which premiered on 3rd June 2017 at Goethe Institut in Bangalore, is one such serious attempt to engage with these questions in the context of global human trade of our times.
#supernova is a story of an adolescent boy Santosh from Eastern Uttar Pradesh in India, who gets trafficked through an elaborate yet hidden network of human trafficking, which has been made possible through the web of digital technologies.
With an obviously tragic story of trafficking and sexual exploitation, it is quite easy to fall in the trap of a black and white depiction of reality, between the sexual predator and the prey, which generates sympathy for the victim and tears in the eyes of audience.
This happens in most cases when art is made for a “social cause,” as we end up witnessing a highly moralised story that provides ready-made answers instead of asking questions.
It is here that Indian Ensemble’s recent play charts out a different path and resists the temptation of ‘preaching to the choir’, as it attempts to stimulate questions in the minds of audience.
One of the central questions that emerges in the play is about the agency of Santosh, whether we should treat him as a victim of his circumstances, or an agent who is struggling to gain back his freedom that has been snatched unfairly.
Throughout the play we get to hear about the inner world of the characters, enabled with a stylistic choice of using a mike which gives voice to their self-conversations. Through these soliloquies, we get to know how Santosh gets trapped into human trade through online chats and is taken to Delhi first, and then to Dubai.
We also become aware of how a trafficked person attempts to adjust himself into the new situation on one hand, while simultaneously hoping for freedom on the other. For a 15 year old boy to live with this contradiction every day makes us feel ridiculous about our tall claims of democracy, freedom and international justice in the 21st century.
However, even in such a depressing situation, Santosh doesn’t come across as a victim of his circumstances, as he constantly mitigates his agency within the world of forced sex work. His agency is foregrounded when the client (Milan) wants to have sex with Santosh without condom, to which Santosh consents only when he is promised a return back to his home.
Milan who has sadomasochist sexual perversions with children, is also provided with a voice (mike) to express his inner world of guilt and moral dilemmas. Milan is aware of the immorality of his perverted desire with children but seems to be helpless when it comes to reigning over those in real life, even when it is costing him his marriage and social status.
The neon-lit metallic set reveals the fantastical world of Milan with aluminum bed and chains, and images of deserted landscapes and Manga porn on the screens. The soundscape and neon colours creates a mood of self-destructive perversion which traps Milan in a purgatorial limbo. He is desperate to cure himself out of this mental affliction as well as the sexually transmitted disease that he has contracted, for which he believes that having sex with Santosh (without condom) is the final solution.
Concurrently he also feels a sense of moral responsibility for Santosh, as they belong to the same town, and wants to help him return back to his home from Dubai as a form of moral penance. For both his perversions and responsibilities, his only access is provided through digital technologies as the boundary between the real and the virtual world gets blurred.
It is in this virtual-inner world of Milan, where we find the central question of the play – how does digital technology allows for new forms of perversions, specific to the 21st century?
Arguably, the major economic force that established Internet was digital porn and thus it is no surprise that technology and perversion are fundamentally intermeshed. Virtual world creates a space of unreality and anonymity which allows for extreme perversions as they can’t be judged by the moral and legal norms of the real world.
For instance, in the game Second Life, one can have avatars committing crimes and sexual violence in the virtual world, which can’t be brought under the purview of laws as it is not “really” happening. With people like Milan spending majority of their time in this virtual world, often as catfish (people with fake profiles), the chances for having relationships and conversations in the physical realm, where anonymity and deception is difficult, has reduced drastically.
Understanding this phenomenon of techno-perversion is key towards countering human trafficking in the 21st century.
As the audience enter the space of the play, they are invited to don online avatars to begin chatting anonymously with a stranger, often leading to quirky conversations on sexual fantasies. The chatting continues during the play and is also projected on the TV screens for the audience to see how outlandish these conversations can soon become.
However, this not a marginal phenomenon anymore as internet porn and sex chatting have taken extreme proportions of serious addiction. Thus, one needs to understand these subterraneous eruptions to get a better sense of how dehumanising is our blind faith in modern technology.
Although the primary question of the play stays with the problematisation of techno-sexual perversion in contemporary societies, it inadvertently touches the root of social perversion in the Indian society. Santosh, although a victim of cyber human trafficking, still harbor hopes of going back to home and leading a free life. But at the end, we see even that hope gets crushed and Santosh loses his will to continue the struggle anymore. It is in the final skype call between Milan and Santosh’s father Nanku, that we get a glimpse of something more vicious than the sexual perversions of Milan.
Nanku too loves his son but he is equally bound by the norms of purity and pollution associated with the caste system, which he can’t dare to transgress. If Santosh comes back to home, his polluted body will defile the entire home, and the family would also get out casted. Thus, to protect his other children from exclusion, Nanku who has spent 3 years in trying to find his son and spent all his money in doing it, has to finally reject him.
Throughout the play we see Santosh not as a victim but as someone who struggles against the sexual perversions that led to his trafficking, but at the end he succumbs to the social perversion of Brahminical patriarchy.
Engaging with a child trafficking story of India, the play consciously and unconsciously hints at some of these questions of the human trade problem that we face today. One hopes to deepen this inquiry in future by exploring the concealed interconnections between sexual, technological and social perversions of our times.
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