Teesri Duniya’s “Counter” Offence: Diasporic Theatre and Minority Representation in the Bill 96 Era

Shailee Rajak*

Abstract

Against the backdrop of the passage of Bill 96, I explore the work of Teesri Duniya, a Montréal-based theatre company that has resisted cultural homogenization and domination for four decades. By focusing on a particular Teesri play, Counter Offence by Rahul Varma, the paper undertakes an analysis of the text as a “counter” narrative where multiple moral and political perspectives—represented by well-rounded characters belonging to a variety of social groups in Montréal of the 1990s—collide. The central argument highlights how Varma’s work portrays an intricately complex version of the Quebecois cultural mosaic which stands in stark contrast to the monolithic francophone society celebrated by the government in power. The paper posits that Counter Offence foregrounds the important role of the theatre company in challenging social stratification and political oppression as enshrined in policies such as Bill 96.

Keywords: diasporic theatre, cultural and linguistic hegemony, Brechtian theatre, minority representation, diversity and inclusion

In May 2022, Bill 96—an amendment to the Charter of French Language (also known as Quebec French Preference Law, 1977) which seeks to strengthen the predominance of French culture and language in Quebec—was adopted by the province’s conservative CAQ government headed by Premier Francois Legault (Marchand). Against this political backdrop, my paper studies the work of Teesri Duniya, a Montréal-based theatre company that has resisted cultural homogenization and domination for four decades. The “About” section on the theatre’s official website states that it is one of the first culturally inclusive companies in Canada that produces plays by, and about, visible minorities and First Nations with the aim to reflect the diverse Canadian and Quebecois contexts. By focusing on a particular Teesri play, Counter Offence by Rahul Varma, the paper argues that the company’s politically engaged theatre—firmly rooted in the diasporic community and their experience within the local socio-cultural milieu—carves out spaces for subaltern representation, and subsequently existence, which is of crucial importance to question nationalist Quebecois tendencies and francophone government policies. Couched within a murder mystery framework, Varma’s play paints a nuancedly complex picture of divergent but conflicting moral and political views, represented by well-rounded characters belonging to a number of social groups in Montréal of the late 1990s. The narrative explores contemporary issues ranging from debates about constitutional freedom of expression and cultural misogyny to racism and police profiling.

My paper undertakes an analysis of Varma’s text as a “counter” narrative wherein a variety of beliefs and perspectives collide. In doing so, the play highlights a much more complicated version of the Quebecois cultural mosaic than is conventionally accepted. It starts a dialogue on the true nature of multi-ethnic interactions, which are not always a site of peaceful or friendly relations but, rather, demonstrate violently intricate and intertwined differences. I posit that Counter Offence foregrounds the significant role of Teesri Duniya theatre in challenging cultural and social stratification, ethnic stereotypes and binaries, as well as political and economic oppression of the marginalized as enshrined in Quebecois policies such as Bill 96.

The paper strives to highlight the success of Varma’s play in bringing the subaltern voice to the centre by highlighting the convoluted dynamics of racial and gendered socio-cultural representations, otherwise ignored in mainstream nationalist narratives.

Bill 96 and Its Societal Ramifications

With elections scheduled for October 2022, Legault gave new lease to the discourse surrounding the protection of linguistic and cultural identity by claiming that the use of French was declining in Quebec. As an advocate of nationalist integration centered around French and shared values, he introduced and won support for Bill 96, with a strong 78 votes in favor and only 29 against. An ambitious piece of legislation, the bill grants sweeping powers to the State in order to ensure that French language—ostensibly, the cornerstone of Quebec’s distinct identity and culture—is mandatory in virtually every aspect of life. Under this new law, the Quebec language office has full authority to enforce the use of French in courts, healthcare institutions and both public and private workplaces.

Before getting re-elected for another term in office, Legault further announced his commitment to controlling and slowing down immigration in the future, as the “vitality of French language depended on it” (Bergeron). This vision of creating a homogeneous French-speaking nation in North America—and its preservation at any and all cost—embodies other initiatives, including but not limited to bans on public servants wearing religious symbols or clothing.

Critics have pointed out the adverse effects of such a francophone policy on Indigenous and immigrant populations, for the majority of whom French is a third language (McCullough). As French is made compulsory for all private businesses and government institutions, Montréal—a city known internationally for its flourishing, multilingual cosmopolitanism—could be on the verge of losing a large fraction of its non-francophone labor force, leading to substantial economic loss. Even beyond the immediate material effects of such a legislative reform, Bill 96 has been criticized for going against the fundamental ideological tenets of multicultural diversity, inclusivity and equality—heralded as the backbone of Canadian progressivism since the beginning of the Trudeau era in 1970s.

The discussion around Bill 96 can be traced back to the larger discourse on the policy of Quebecois “interculturalism” as elucidated by Gérard Bouchard in Interculturalism: A View from Quebec. He explores the influence of historical antecedents and French nationalism that has shaped the Quebecois view on cultural diversity and immigration, which is notably different from the rest of the Canadian perspective. Quebec defines itself as a “sociological nation with the status of a province within the Canadian Confederation” (Bouchard 10). With French as the dominant linguistic identity, “the francophone majority is a minority nation within Canada and a cultural minority on the continent” (11).  Bouchard argues that “interculturalism” was adopted as the official provincial stance as it relies on the centrality of a dominant culture— in Quebec’s case, a francophone one. In their article “Teesri Duniya Theatre: Resisting Inequities and Ethnocentric Nationalism Through Politically Engaged Theatre” Lodhia et al. argue how interculturalism, based on the twin tenets of the “call for secularism and hope for a middle ground between assimilation and the ‘mosaic’” (176), continues to pose challenges for the smooth integration of immigrants in Quebec. One of the reasons for this insistent centrality of francophone culture—at the cost of multicultural inclusion and acceptance—is the widespread “crisis of perception” amongst the provincial residents that the French language and identity is constantly under threat of disappearance; a view foregrounded prominently in the Bouchard-Taylor Commission (officially known as the Quebec Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, 2007).

On the other hand, the federal framework of multiculturalism and inclusivity is seen as “an opportunistic political ploy designed to diminish the primacy of Canada’s French roots and to defuse the strong popular nationalist and separatist movements, which included the iteration of a revolutionary, antireligious, and anticolonial (against the English) movement in the 1960s known as the Quiet Revolution” (Lodhia et al. 174). Thus, the Quebecois investment in linguistic, identity and cultural preservation due to historical legacies leads to an implicit social quandary—“an absence of space within their nationalistic project for hybridized identities that are part of an increasingly globalized world where racialized, marginalized and immigrant identities manifest in dynamic pluralities” (185).

Counter Offence Production, March 2020. Left to Right: Michael Briganti, Minoo Gundevia, Davide Chiazzese, Alida Esmail, Maureen Adelson, Amena Ahmad. Photo: Svetla Atanasova

In the world of theatre, the influence of cultural policies on disparities in funding—between federal arts councils and provincial bodies—becomes obvious. By 1990, the Advisory Committee to the Canada Council for Racial Equality in the Arts was established at the federal level. By 1992, the Equity Office was established within the Canada Council for the Arts, and a range of initiatives—including “recruitment, staff- sensitization, reformation of eligibility criteria and representation of diverse artists on juries” (Lodhia et al. 181)—were incorporated to address equity issues in the arts. However, within Quebecois contexts, white anglophone and francophone projects continue to receive proportionally higher funding than what is available for visible minorities and Indigenous groups. Teesri Duniya’s campaign for funding is a prime example of such disparity.

In the early 1990s, Rahul Varma—one of the co-founders of the theatre company—received his first Canada Council grant to work on the script of Counter Offence, the play which forms the focus of this essay. His proposal was praised highly for artistic merit, socio-political complexity and mature treatment of the subject matter, which revolves around the themes of racial and gendered violence. At the same time, CALQ (Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Quebec—the Quebec arts council) rejected his proposal, citing the reasons that “the theme is of some interest but it lacks originality . . . [the] writing is not mature, very young . . . [the] project is still naive and needs to mature. The socio- political thinking is not very strong” (Lodhia et al. 182). This paper argues that Bill 96 is positioned perfectly to perpetuate—rather than mitigate—such financial disparities and socio-cultural discrimination in artistic disciplines.

Teesri Duniya and the Politics of Representation

Historically, the plays produced by Teesri Duniya have actively countered the dominant forces of hegemonic assimilation by portraying diasporic realities and questioning racial and ethnic stereotypes which perpetuate in the Western artistic world. The company—with a name that literally translates to mean “Third World” theatre—was set up by immigrant artists from India, Rahul Varma and Rana Bose, in 1981. The theatre’s mandate, as displayed in the “Mission” section on the official website, states that:

Teesri Duniya Theatre strives for a stage that fosters critical thinking, connects communities, reflects our country and invites social-action. . . .Our plays are situated at the intersection of culture, class, and gender while always remaining rooted in concerns of social justice and secularism.

This statement centralizes the theatre’s foundational belief—that to build an ideal society free of hierarchical divisions, inclusion of diversity and equity in theatrical representation is of key importance. This vision is furthered through a politics of representation based on an aggressive interaction with the dominant linguistic culture(s).

Until the late 1980s, the company mounted plays solely in Hindi but later expanded its repertoire to include anglophone plays which reflected common immigrant issues such as low-wage employment realities, accusations of stealing jobs and incidents of police profiling. These plays—such as Job Stealer (1987), Equal Wages (1989), Miss Orient(ed) (2005) and Counter Offence (1996)—foreground local realities of Canadians belonging to diverse backgrounds such as racialized newcomers, Indigenous Peoples and those groups whose identities are marginalized or stereotyped within the mainstream context.

Another prevalent pattern that can be traced in Teesri’s plays since the late 1990s is the emphasis on international themes of human and gender rights violations, as well as destruction and loss due to war. Canadian characters usually play the role of international, peacekeeping individuals who help and support the locals in their fight for survival and justice. Globally acclaimed productions such as Bhopal (2004), Truth and Treason (2009) and State of Denial (2012) fall under this category.

Teesri’s plays showcase a deliberate distancing from the culture of origin but, at the same time, engage in a dialogic exchange to resist socio-political forces of cultural homogenization in Quebec. They holistically examine critical social issues and relationships between marginalized communities and the dominant culture(s) by questioning cultural orthodoxy through the voices of the subaltern.

Against the background of fresh tensions between the federal and provincial ideological gestalts, my paper demonstrates that the representation of racialized hybrid identities in Teesri’s works contribute to the possibility of a vision that offers inclusive, invaluable social capital leading to a promotion of both diversity and social cohesion among Quebec-Canadians.

Poster advertising Counter Offence production at The Segal Centre for Performing Arts, Montréal (March 2020)
Teesri’s Counter Offence

Counter Offence was written by Rahul Varma, the current artistic director of Teesri, in 1996. The play follows the life of Shazia Rizvi, a first-generation Muslim of East Indian origins with a Canadian citizenship. After her marriage to Shapoor Farhadi—an Iranian citizen studying in Concordia University and living in Canada on a student’s visa—she decides to sponsor him for permanent Canadian residency. While waiting on the government’s decision, their relationship takes an ugly turn when Shapoor hits Shazia and she responds by calling the police. It is Sergeant Galliard, a white officer and head of the domestic violence unit in the Montréal police department, who attends Shazia’s call and temporarily arrests Shapoor. Moolchand Misra, an anti-racism activist, accuses the Montréal police of racial misconduct against Shapoor and manages to start an inquiry to examine Galliard’s actions.

Representing a different moral position, and defending Galliard, is Clarinda Keith—a black social worker committed to a zero-tolerance policy on violence against women. Meanwhile, Shazia decides to end her marriage with Shapoor, which results in his imminent deportation. Shapoor, however, is found dead in his hotel room. Thereafter, everyone involved in the case becomes a suspect in his murder.

Written as a conventional murder mystery/courtroom drama, the play weaves an anachronistic narrative that goes back and forth between the past and present. As the dramatic tension builds leading to the revelation of the murderer’s identity, Varma explores a volatile situation where a crime against a woman is pitted against the cause of a larger crime against an entire race.

The play premiered in Montréal as an anglophone Teesri production and had a successful run. This was followed by the play being remounted the next year, as a collaborative production between Teesri and Montréal’s Black Theatre Workshop, at the Monument-National. International recognition came at its heels as the play was subsequently translated into French by Pierre Legris, with a new title—L’Affaire Farhadi—and mounted twice (in 1999 and 2000) at Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre. This production was co-directed by Jack Langedijk and Paul Lefebvre. The Italian translation of the play called Il Caso Farhadi, directed by Bill Glassco, was mounted in Venice in 2000.

Counter Offence Production, March 2020. Left to Right: Amir Sam Nakhjavani, Alida Esmail. Photo: Svetla Atanasova

The paper will now examine the play’s narrative structure as well as the main characters—each representing a different moral position vis-à-vis the incident—to explore how Varma creates spaces for counter-narratives where the audience can experience the differences of perspectives, tensions between power dynamics and the sheer diversity of contradictory beliefs as a variety of cultures negotiate with each other in a bid to assert themselves within the Quebecois milieu.

Racism and Police Profiling

Racism and police brutality against people of color are pervasive issues in Western society. Since the 2020 murder of George Floyd in police custody, there has been a large-scale, urgent discourse on racial profiling and how it interrupts the constitutional rendering of justice in Canada. It highlights the mutual distrust between the State and communities of people of color, a result of repeated incidents of police misconduct and the systemic failure to address institutionalized racism. In the play’s preface, Varma mentions several incidents involving the police shooting people of color in the 1970s–80s in Montréal where public inquiry was prevented in the aftermath by political powers. At the same time, he acknowledges that the damage caused to one’s professional image by such public shaming in racial contexts is often irreversible, even if later the individual is proven to be “not guilty” in a legal trial.

In Counter Offence, Varma explores certain ambiguities inherent to contemporary activism which often dilute its effect to some extent. This is done through the character of Moolchand Misra—an anti-racism activist of Indian origin—who comes to represent an exception, rather than a generalization, of politically motivated activism in its entirety. Moolchand’s testimony, presented at the very beginning of Act-1, sets the stage for an exploration of the tension between the different causes for justice which are constantly in conflict with each other throughout the narrative. He mentions that incidents of racial profiling are a regular occurrence, a commonly known fact amongst the diasporic communities who are extremely conscious of the active violence this engenders (Varma, Counter Offence 30). However, Moolchand’s rhetoric on systemic racism and, subsequently, the perception of ethnic “otherness” in Canada is shown to be flawed. His flamboyant political stance is inherently contradictory—even as he argues for a better future that emerges triumphant from the quagmire of historical injustice and violence, he categorically states, “I’m not fighting against racism, I’m fighting for equality” (1). The paradox in this statement becomes apparent when we consider the fact that racism—and the violence, exploitation and discrimination it inevitably leads to—against Indigenous Peoples and marginalized races is, perhaps, the biggest lesson on in/equality that history has to teach twenty-first-century Canadian society.

For Moolchand—a brown man and a member of the race tribunal—Galliard’s treatment of Shapoor becomes more important than Shazia’s charges of domestic violence. Exercising substantial social and political influence, Moolchand promises to fight for Shapoor and successfully intimidates the Montréal police department. By sensationalizing Shapoor’s treatment in custody and drawing media attention, he even manages to secure his release on bail and Galliard’s temporary suspension from the police force. Throughout the narrative, Moolchand uses anti-racism rhetoric to attack the police for unfairly detaining a young man of color. He argues that if it were a white man being accused of domestic violence, the police would have taken a different course of action. It is only because of Shapoor’s skin color, his cultural and religious identity that he was being made an example of (Varma, Counter Offence 27). Through Moolchand’s character, Varma provides commentary on how questions of gendered and domestic violence are often seen in a different, more contentious, light when emerging from an ethnic context as opposed to similar crimes within the dominant white culture. He analyzes implications of cultural backwardness and religious “barbarity” that are treated as casual reasons by Western criminal justice systems when dealing with ethnically marginalized criminals (43–45). Even as the narrative weaves in and out of the moral complexities of such a situation, the questions remain unanswered as characters are shown to be ethically ambiguous themselves.

Counter Offence Production, March 2020. Left to Right: Amir Sam Nakhjavani, Arun Varma. Photo: Svetla Atanasova

Varma complicates the picture of conflicting moral stances by problematizing Moolchand’s character itself—he emerges as someone who wields political activism to further his personal ambitions and selfish agendas. The hypocritically shrewd and opportunistic side of Moolchand is brought to the fore when it becomes clear that he constructed an entire farce of racist misconduct—misusing the history of prevalent police profiling and ethnic oppression—to further his own political stature.

MOOLCHAND. (pause) Did the cop rough you up?
SHAPOOR. What?
MOOLCHAND. (whispers) Did he make the crime you committed the fault of your race or your culture? You know, you being an Iranian!
SHAPOOR. I hit her.
MOOLCHAND. You have already said that. You hit your wife. It should not happen, but it did. Now, did the cop treat you the same way he would have, say, a white person? (Varma, Counter Offence 14–15)

It is clear here that Shapoor did not even think of racist misconduct during his arrest until Moolchand brings it up and encourages him to feel victimized. Moolchand, thus, misuses his position to gather support for his cause and set up an inquiry into Galliard’s actions during the arrest and subsequent treatment of Shapoor. Even though Shapoor’s case barely fits the mold of police brutality—insofar as he was not arrested without sufficient cause— Moolchand manages to use the issue to secure his release.

Varma further highlights Moolchand’s forced activism by fleshing out Galliard’s own background. Galliard, despite his use of racist slurs and stereotypically derogatory language, is shown to be the child of a mother who died of domestic abuse when he was young. He is vehement in protesting his suspension, claiming that he arrested Shapoor not because of his race but, rather, because he thinks that wife assaulters are as bad as child molesters and pimps (Varma, Counter Offence 15). In stark contrast, Moolchand’s moral and political stance normalizes violence against women. He emerges as a propagator of values that are founded upon cultural misogyny. Moolchand takes issue not with a man beating his wife but with her report of the beating to the police. He tries to convince Clarinda—the women’s rights activist—to counsel Shazia into forgiving her husband and withdrawing her complaint. Furthermore, he insinuates during the legal proceedings that it was Shazia who was responsible for Shapoor’s murder (24). His fight for equality and social justice remains limited to men of color. Women of color and the issue of their double marginalization—due to their race as well as their gender—remains absent from his rhetoric.

As a character motivated solely by personal goals, with absolutely no empathy for either of the individuals involved, it is Moolchand who profits the most from politicizing this case. Despite Shapoor’s murder and the dropped charges against him, Moolchand is awarded the title of “Indo-Canadian of the Year” for his political activism. He also achieves his goal of getting Galliard kicked off the police force while negotiating reservations for ethnic minorities in the future. His politics revolves around deepening the divide between ethnic minorities and the police system. Varma, however, further complicates the plot by implicating the police force as well. The inquiry against Galliard as well as his temporary suspension are shown to be moves of pure political propaganda that have less to do with combating racism and more about winning the union campaign. This is brought out clearly through Prougault’s character—the president of the police union—who, ultimately, has a huge role to play in Shapoor’s murder. In the end, through his depiction of Moolchand’s character, Varma asks for more accountability from the police system of Canada. However, by revealing Moolchand’s opportunistic, divisive politics, he implicates the audiences in the cultural complexities at play within the social fabric of Canada. Varma, simultaneously, encourages a critical dialogue on the question of ingrained inequality and racial oppression but also the counterproductive consequences of embellishing this issue for selfish motives.

Cultural Misogyny and Freedom of Expression

In the preface, Varma brings up some examples from the Canadian legal discourse wherein individuals belonging to marginalized ethnic communities have argued for their right to practice domestic violence or genital mutilation. The country’s constitution does guarantee the freedom to practice cultural, religious and social customs without State interference. However, it is important to acknowledge that just because an entire society believes in a certain practice does not mean they cannot be wrong or simply mistaken in their beliefs (Rachels and Rachels 23–26). The “cultural differences” argument cannot be invoked to justify or defend violence against women. The practices mentioned above are examples of patriarchal misogyny internalized over centuries. They are founded on the misplaced belief that female bodies only hold value insofar as their ability to reproduce is integral to the survival of a society. As such, women subjected to such physical abuse are seen more as objects or properties owned by the patriarch of the family rather than individuals with their own bodily autonomy.

This patriarchal dynamic is brought out clearly in Varma’s play through the characters of Shazia and Shapoor. Under pressure from his father in Iran to establish a carpet-selling business in Montréal, Shapoor struggles to balance his duties as a student, a husband and a son. The expensive cargo of carpets his father has already shipped to Canada weighs heavily on his mind. Shazia, his wife, becomes the easiest outlet for all his frustrations and, thus, the victim of his physical assault. When she refuses to sponsor his parents’ citizenship in Canada, he beats her. Upon being arrested for his actions, Shapoor demonstrates repentance. He is self-aware and recognizes that his father was a violent man himself who used to beat his mother. Shapoor claims that he does not want to become like him. In the end, however, such regret proves to be insincere when he violates the restraining order Shazia has against him and repeats his violent actions.

Such cultural conditioning—however misogynistic—is not easy to break loose from. Shazia herself is caught between feeling ashamed at being her husband’s punching bag and the guilt of not fulfilling her duties as a wife as prescribed by her culture. Despite being the sole breadwinner of the family, as well as the victim of repeated domestic violence, she feels she is being cruel to Shapoor by withdrawing his sponsorship. Layers of complexity are added to her situation when she realizes that she is four months pregnant with Shapoor’s child and seriously considers forgiving him. She is cognizant of the fact that, as a married woman with a child and no husband, she would face heavy backlash from her own community. Shazia’s father, Murad—a cultural loyalist—is the main representative of this orthodox moral position. Varma complicates Murad’s portrayal by showing him to be permanently caught between his duties as a father and his duties towards his community. On one hand, Murad wants his daughter to be safe from Shapoor and advocates for his arrest and deportation, noting how Shapoor is nothing but a burden on his hardworking daughter. He condemns Shapoor wholeheartedly for hitting his daughter. During his testimony, Murad is visibly shaken after discovering his battered daughter (Varma, Counter Offence 43). At the same time, he upholds and loyally defends the same socio-cultural values that led to his daughter’s assault. He genuinely believes—and is repeatedly made to realize by his community—that a woman without a husband brings nothing but shame on her family (32). Rather than help his daughter deal with the trauma of physical abuse and show parental support for her as a single mother, Murad’s main goal seems to be to get her remarried as quickly as possible. His beliefs dictate that the only way for Shazia to escape the constant fear of Shapoor’s violence is to get married again and, thus, live under her new husband’s protection. The narrative highlights how Shazia is not the first woman in Murad’s family who has suffered in the past due to his conservative, dogmatic principles. At one point, Murad mentions how the mullah (the Islamic priest at a mosque) advised his father to “lock and starve” his sister, who had separated from her husband. This action would constitute a first warning, a chance for her to behave, before she was “smacked” into obedience (33).

Shafiqa, Murad’s wife, eloquently summarizes his internal struggle—“No, no your Honor, my husband—he was so possessed—shame—he said—our lives were filled with shame. I do not know why he says these things. He is a gentle man, your Honor. He could not have done that. He could not have killed that poor boy, but your Honor, he was just so upset with our community” (Varma, Counter Offence 31). Thus, Murad’s relationship with his own community is fraught with tension: on one hand, he supports the cultural beliefs upheld by the orthodoxy and guilts his daughter into shame for separating from her husband; at the same time, he resents his community for holding him to the same conservative standards in their interactions with him.

I argue that through the portrayal of Murad’s character, the text contributes significantly to the postcolonial discussion around the category of diasporas. The diasporic subject, connected to histories of migration or having migrated to a new land themself, is faced with the “enigma of arrival” (Nandan 75). “Arrival”—in terms of subjectivity formation for diasporic individuals—consists of attempts to arrive at an identity which is authentic and whole. However, the process of migration to an “alien” land comes into conflict with the nostalgia of homeland and its culture, leading to the fractured subjectivity of the postcolonial consciousness. Murad’s inability to find equilibrium in response to his daughter’s circumstances originates from his irreconcilable history: the personal and the political.

On a fundamental level, migration to the West exacerbates the results of colonization—further fracturing the postcolonial self by reminding him of his displaced and dispossessed traditions, cultures, languages, land and history; an ideal that the postcolonial Self strives to arrive at but constantly and continuously fails to (Nandan 77). Murad shows a deep ingrained longing for certain states of being which are “authentic”; however, this desire is always problematized by the knowledge that the idealized authenticity has been ruptured by the process of immigration and that it is impossible to return to any pure cultural or historical wholeness. While the journey of arrival to one’s origins is illusory, the reality of cultural boundaries is not. Thus, the diasporic consciousness, represented in Murad, constantly strives to uphold these cultural values in the face of the experience of alienation and isolation in the cultural west.

Amidst this conflict between cultures and moral views, Shazia’s character emerges as one of the most poignant representations of suffering innocents. Not only is she a victim of domestic abuse, but she is also a South Asian, Muslim woman. Varma artfully depicts the doubly marginalized position she occupies. Even as she relies on more articulate, authoritative voices to help her, she is not shown to be completely dependent. She recognizes the difference between right and wrong; she emerges as a protofeminist figure who stands up for her rights as an individual while defending her decision to not marry again (Varma, Counter Offence 38). As such, like Varma himself discusses in his preface, these primitive, misogynistic cultural practices are more often than not criticized from within, by practitioners of said cultures themselves. In her fight for justice and independence, Clarinda Keith is Shazia’s biggest supporter. A black woman, Clarinda is a social worker who runs a centre for abused women. Clarinda defends Shazia in court when she is suspected of murdering Shapoor. Initially, she was the one who counselled Shazia to end her marriage and withdraw Shapoor’s sponsorship for citizenship (9–10). She becomes Galliard’s supporter in the face of Moolchand’s rhetorical intimidation using the race card. Clarinda’s activism for gender equality trumps even her belief in racial unity amongst minorities. This is clear when she states, “Shazia’s my community” (30), in response to Moolchand’s accusation of abandoning her racial community. She firmly believes that “He hit her because he is a man and she is a woman. It is nothing to do with culture” (28). Her dismissal of claims of racism levelled against Galliard add a further layer of complexity to Varma’s play—a black woman defending a white police officer’s action (30). Clarinda’s feminism wins against the us/them binary upon which Moolchand’s political agenda is founded. While Clarinda claims that reading racism into every situation is counterproductive, Moolchand firmly holds on to the belief that racism is at the heart of Canadian society.

By fleshing out this dynamic between Clarinda and Moolchand, two extremely distinct minority voices, Varma demonstrates the variety of ethnic perspectives in Canada. He successfully debunks the notion that all minorities are somehow the same or they all hold consistently similar ideas about racism. The character’s different moral positions create a grey area that becomes difficult to navigate for critical audiences. Varma complicates our understanding of racial and gender violence by presenting positions which counter one another, thereby producing a diverse narrative about the realities of ethnic and racial experiences in the country.

Counter Offence Production, March 2020. Left to Right: Arun Varma, Amir Sam Nakhjavani. Photo: Svetla Atanasova

Brechtian Counternarrative Strategies

Varma’s understanding of the diasporic individual’s material conditions in history and the problematics of uncovering postcolonial reality are greatly informed by Brecht’s theory of historicization and theatre. There is a double movement in Brechtian historicization of preserving the past and acknowledging, even foregrounding, the audience’s present perspective (Brecht 190). When Brecht says that spectators should become historians, he refers both to the spectator’s detachment, her “critical” position, and to the fact that she is writing her own history even as she absorbs messages from the stage. Historicization is, then, a way of seeing and the enemy of recuperation and appropriation—one cannot historicize and colonize the Other (Diamond 86).

Brecht views classical mimesis in theatre, intertwined with strategies of linear historicization, as a subtle form of oppression—it creates a simplistic view, a fully realized illusory world complete unto itself that invisiblizes or at least subdues the contradictions and complexities of a diverse reality (Diamond 84). In the case of diasporic, South Asian writers—and particularly of dramatists—the erasure from Quebecois history has been so nearly complete that the postcolonial critic feels compelled to make some attempt at recovery. In response, Brecht develops a dialectical dramaturgy that would contextualize and reclaim the diasporic authority of the South Asian writer/historian. Verfremdungseffekt—translated into English as “alienation”—is the technique of defamiliarizing a word, an idea, a gesture so as to enable the spectator to see or hear it afresh. Alienation, as a cornerstone of Brechtian theory, is a theatrical strategy of representation that seeks to expose or “make visible” (Brecht 192). Brecht argues that if the performance remains outside the affective response to linearity, the audience may remain free to analyze and form opinions about the play’s “fable.” It allows him to delimit the central concerns as embedded in his dramatic theory—attention to the dialectical and contradictory forces within social relations, principally the agon of class conflict in its changing historical forms, and nonmimetic disunity in theatrical signification (Diamond 84).

“Alienating,” rather than impersonating, the conventionally linear theatre time in favor of anachronism is a political decision by Varma. The present of the trial—foregrounded in the witness testimonials—is constantly interrupted by flashbacks which flesh out the past of interactions between all the characters involved, leading up to the murder. Varma’s stage directions foreground the Brechtian nature of his drama: “In this scene, lights cross-fade from one location/actor to the other in uninterrupted succession to create a semblance that things are happening simultaneously” (Varma, Counter Offence 37). In foregrounding the nonlinearity of Varma’s playtext, I have tried to “alienate” a narrative feature through which dominant social attitudes about race and gender are made visible and, subsequently, debunked. The constant juxtaposition of viewpoints from the past and present highlights how characters, such as Moolchand and Prougault, change their moral position on these issues based on personal convenience and situational ease. Spatial ambiguity is another characteristic Brechtian trope that Varma appropriates for himself. The setting itself is fairly ordinary—spaces we use in our everyday lives such as a family room, a woman’s shelter, a police station, and a courtroom. However, the playwright’s instructions do away with realist demarcations and physical boundaries in favor of using lighting to identify the locations.

The sense of different locations is created by an illuminated area from where the characters talk to the unseen judge . . . the actor would simply step into the illuminated area and speak as if from a witness stand. However, he or she could speak from any point on the stage. (1)

Thus, by adopting a non-realist stage setting, Varma depicts multiple spaces in intersectional simultaneity. Alienation techniques also challenge the mimetic property of performances—and how they conventionally resemble the hegemonic ideology of history and culture to which they refer. Varma’s use of English, interspersed with a lot of Hindi and Urdu phrases—two of the dominant languages spoken by the South Asian diaspora—is successful in crossing conventional linguistic barriers. It reflects the multilingual framework supported by the Canadian constitution.

These techniques of alienating the audience experience from reality allow Varma to deconstruct the conventions of mimetic drama and reveal the contradictions/gaps in hegemonic ideology which fail to account for such diversity of being and existing in the Quebecois context. His documentation of the experience of the South Asian diaspora renders linear narrative progress meaningless. Therefore, Varma challenges the presumed ideological neutrality of historical reflection and disrupts a coercive patriarchal and racial ideology, produced and propagated by dominant nationalist narratives.

Trailer of the Counter Offence Production, March 2020.  Video credits: Teesri Duniya Theatre, youtube.com Writer: Rahul Varma. Director: Arianna Bardesono
Conclusion

Counter Offence addresses the complexities of moral and political differences in a scenario where, often, individuals merely use ideological positions to further their selfish motives. Through a Brechtian representation of these issues, Varma is successful in painting a picture of Montréal’s social fabric which is rich in its inclusion of a variety of cultural milieus and ideas, entangled in a chaotic battle of assertion.

Through this paper, I have analyzed the play as an intricate, yet accurate, depiction of the conflict between ideas of racial profiling, cultural stereotyping, and gendered violence. As one genuine cause is pitted against the other, Varma deftly pulls at the threads of socio-cultural friction to unravel the fabric of a monolithic francophone society celebrated by the government in power. The play’s simultaneous exploration of diasporic anxiety and intracultural conflicts further complicates ideas of racism and sexism as they are propagated in conventional discourses.

Structurally, I have explored the linguistic plurality of the script, its anachronistic narrative, as well as the non-realist setting to foreground the play’s blurring of spatial, temporal, and cultural boundaries. Through such an analysis, I have argued how Teesri’s work offers a counter-narrative to the discourse on cultural domination and homogenization by depicting a diversely inclusive society formed of distinct cultural identities and ideologies in their most vibrant form, existing together within the Canadian context.

As Teesri remounted Counter Offence at Segal Centre for Performing Arts, Montréal in March, I have ultimately argued for the urgency and relevancy of such diasporic representation of complex multi-ethnic realities in contemporary Quebec. It is an attempt to call for enhanced cultural inclusivity and equality for all communities, races, ethnicities and genders in the realm of Canadian performance in the post-Bill 96 era.

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*Shailee Rajak is a graduate student in the Department of English Literature and Drama at McGill University, Montréal. Her academic interests lie at an intersection of postcolonial theatre, queer theory and gender studies. A budding writer, her YA graphic novel, My Story, My Voice: Sita and Helen—a feminist, intercultural retelling of the two epic traditions, the Hindu Ramayana and the Greek Iliad—has been recently published by Tulika Books, India. She seeks to examine themes of queer belonging and identity within the postcolonial imagination through her creative and academic work.

Copyright © 2023 Shailee Rajak
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