“Often, it’s only when something is relayed back to you objectively, be it on stage or life more generally, can you start to recognise the trauma of what’s actually happened. This is why representation is important.” – Kersherka Sivakumaran (Director)
Where intersectional issues are barely given the light of day in mainstream discussion, I confess that when taking my seat at the beginning of the performance of ‘Behind Closed Doors’, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth a topic as serious as domestic & family violence in South Asian communities could be conflated into the space of an hour and a half of prose, dance and music. Perhaps I’ve grown cynical with age more quickly than I imagined, because what followed was a piece that was able to deeply resonate with an audience that is often left voiceless in conversations about domestic & family violence policy and social movements more broadly.
The Performance - Journey & Thoughts
“Behind Closed Doors” is neither a music show nor a theatre piece. Rather, it’s a hybrid of classical dance, poetry, music and prose. An unorthodox medium, but one that surprisingly works - in no small part thanks to the powerful writing and narration of Amani Mahmoud and the visionary direction of the mastermind behind the show, Kersherka Sivakumaran. The story of the show channels real experiences of survivors and follows the journey of a young girl growing up from a toddler into a young adult bearing witness to the abusive relationship between her mother and father.
The audience is taken on a journey through coercive control and abuse, from the most unassuming cultural settings like a jalebi stand at a festival to within the confines of the family home. At every corner, Amani’s writing captures the stifling shadow of abuse which seeps into the daily life of ‘ma’ and her two children. What is particularly striking is the way Amani captures the more subtle impacts of domestic & family violence on victims. Throughout each episode of the story, there is an unmistakable pattern of every moment of joy, relief and happiness being diluted by the growing shadow of abuse and control. There are moments where the protagonist receives a taste of ‘normality’ and relief which only seems to occur when her father isn’t at home and the audience is left with the uncomfortable feeling that the ‘safe sanctuary’ of home is in fact the one place the protagonist goes to great lengths to avoid.
The emotional impact of the story is driven home by the expressive inclusion of Bharatnatyam with each narrated episode paired with a dance performance encapsulating the feelings and impact of abuse on the characters. Where theatre and dance often retreat to the safety of being ‘abstract’ on sensitive topics, the meaning behind the choreography in ‘Behind Closed Doors’ is crystal clear. Instead of forcing the audience to relive HSC English and ruminate on what the dance actually means, the dance rather allows the audience to spend more time to emotionally understand and feel the realness of the characters. Indeed, it’s that combination of prose and dance which visibly moved many audience members to tears.
However, the true achievement of “Behind Closed Doors” is its subtlety – its ability to possess such a multilayered message whilst simultaneously saying more with less. There is a moment where the two children effectively rescue their mother from their father and sleep on the floor of their mother’s bedroom taking stock of what has happened. The scene concludes with the question “so did you win your basketball game?”. The simplicity of this dialogue triggered a wave of emotion and thoughts about how so many people around us continue to persevere through trauma ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and are doing their best to continue trying to live a ‘normal’ life.
I think that’s what’s ultimately very special and confronting about this performance – it’s focus. As Kersherka and Amani tell me, Behind Closed Doors does not seek to primarily focus on the abuser. Instead, it provides a heartbreaking insight into some of the forgotten voices in abusive relationships – children of domestic & family violence. With this focal point, the audience is brought on a journey of conflict between the cultural priorities of migrant parents in comparison with those of second-generation Australians, conflict against hierarchal tropes of respecting elders, children taking on the role of carer & protector whilst still growing up and, ultimately, children recognising and grappling with serious trauma. In a short time span, ‘Behind Closed Doors’ opens a discussion on intersectionality, cultural awareness, mental health, trauma and how they all necessarily must form part of the discussion when dealing with domestic & family violence.
Behind Closed Doors….gives the audience a subtle mission to try and break that stigma within our communities whilst also acknowledging the need for greater support for diverse victims as well as those who are not in a position to leave.
Behind Closed Doors and Public Policy
What is made abundantly clear by the performance is how the experiences of domestic & family violence and needs of survivors vary depending on a variety of factors including cultural background.
Referring to domestic & family violence services and policy, Kersherka notes that “the system is currently geared toward considering the needs of the one type of victim”. When it comes to South Asian communities and multicultural groups more generally, Kersherka highlights that “[those services] aren’t designed with them or for them. Just because the systems don’t overtly exclude them…doesn’t mean they’re including them either”.
From her own experiences of working in the field, Kersherka tells me that most domestic & family violence support services are geared toward a focus on leaving abusive relationships. Yet many South Asian victims and survivors are looking for support on finding safety within the household, support for their children and will disengage if leaving is the only option provided by support services.
In saying that, one can’t help but feel that at least part of the reason there is a desire to remain within the family unit despite abuse is due to fear of community shame, ‘losing face’ and an overall cultural stigma around leaving. To me, Behind Closed Doors succeeds in reconciling this dichotomy too. It gives the audience a subtle mission to try and break that stigma within our communities whilst also acknowledging the need for greater support for diverse victims as well as those who are not in a position to leave.
Ultimately what Behind Closed Doors makes clear is that, like many social issues, the intersectional aspects of domestic & family violence are still rarely considered. That reality alone is enough to make the best of us a bit cynical. However, ‘Behind Closed Doors’ undoubtedly shakes that cynicism to its core and replaces it with real hope. It’s a performance that has a genuine capacity to influence change within South Asian communities and public debate more broadly. I sincerely hope it’s not the last time it’s performed.
Behind Closed Doors - The Team
Director: Kersherka Sivakumaran
Author & Narrator: Amani Mahmoud
Dance & Choreography: Gayatri Krishnamurthy
Musicians: Indu Balachandran, Bhairavi Raman, Shalaka Malgaonkar
Khushaal Vyas is a lawyer, diversity advocate, freelance journalist and the COO of the Australia India Film Council. To his great shame, in the ‘What Australian Bird Are You’ quiz, he was deemed to be an Ibis.