Frontline World

INDIA, Starring Osama Bin Laden, June 2003


Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Starring Osama Bin Laden"

EMAIL DISPATCHES
Backstage With the Producer

INTERVIEW WITH ARUN RATH
Confronting New Myths

FACTS & STATS
Background, About Jatras, Freedom of Expression

LINKS & RESOURCES
Indian Theater, Reaction to September 11, Media

MAP

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Email Dispatches: Backstage With the Producer
Raney Aronson

Raney Aronson
Raney Aronson, producer of "Starring Osama Bin Laden," is a documentary filmmaker and FRONTLINE producer who has worked on a number of award-winning series. She is currently producing a documentary about AIDS in India. When she set out for FRONTLINE/World in April 2003 with reporter Arun Rath to do a story about a Bengali play whose main character is Osama bin Laden, she began filing animated email messages to FRONTLINE/World series producer Stephen Talbot to keep him up to date. What follows is a sampling of those email dispatches, which provide a vivid behind-the-scenes account of how the story unfolded. [Editor's Note: Kolkata is the Bengali name for Calcutta.]


-----Original Message-----
From: Raney Aronson
Sent: Tuesday, April 01, 2003 2:07 AM
To: Stephen Talbot

Subject: Hi from Kolkata!

Hello all,

So this morning I landed, dropped my bags and met with the opera troupe managers. I think this is going to make for an interesting story!

The troupe is located in a tiny office in a back alley that is devoted to about 20 or 30 little opera troupes. The alleyway is plastered with colorful bold posters ... and actors and producers mill about, talking loudly and smoking.

We are meeting the actors this evening, but I have already met the producers and the general manager. The main producer is a gregarious guy, he wears rings on each of his fingers and was wild about showing me every bit of publicity they have ever received. They also showed me the script of the opera -- handwritten in Bengali and about 50 pages long.

The actors sound promising. This evening I'm meeting [the actor who plays] bin Laden and the writer/director, who is also an actor -- he plays Bush. Tomorrow I'll meet the rest of the main actors -- a woman who plays a freelance reporter, Colin Powell and some of the victims' families.

The one disappointing thing is that the finale is taking place in Kolkata and not in the small northern town, so a road trip with the group is not possible. I'll try to be creative and figure out a way to have movement -- we'll start with bin Laden at home, and work toward the performance. I'll figure this out after I meet the actors and see where they live.

As I was leaving them today, I asked what their show next season will be and they yelled out: "Saddam, of course." Not a bad ending, don't you think?

Take care,
Raney


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-----Original Message-----
From: Raney Aronson
Sent: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 2:16 AM
To: Stephen Talbot

Subject: Notes from India

Hello all,

Today has been quite a day -- we've met with bin Laden, Bush and another main character, Arun Mukherjee, who plays a Muslim American caught in a moral dilemma after 9-11.

I'll start with bin Laden. He's extremely handsome, has a James Dean hairdo -- and looks very much like an Indian film star. He sparkles as he talks about his role and what it means to him. He says that it is the role of his lifetime (he's 33), and he is depressed beyond belief that this will be the last performance. He also says that he studied bin Laden on the news so that he could mimic his gestures, movements, personality. It turns out that 17 other actors auditioned for this role.

He lives on a back street in the northern section of the city -- far from the Opera, which means traveling with him on the night of the performance could be terrific. When we drove up to his place, our fixer who can be quite poetic announced: "Here we find bin Laden at last."

Next is Raja Sarkar, who plays Bush and is also the director and writer of the opera. Inspired by 9-11, he came up with this idea and says it took him only days to finish the script. He's passionate that this opera represents how Indians feel about the situation, as it shows all sides. He is a wonderful character -- warm, intelligent and quirky. I think he will work wonderfully in opposition to the bin Laden character.

I do wonder how the character of bin Laden will come across in the opera. There's an intensely anti-American climate in Kolkata -- like I've never seen before -- so I wonder who will be the ultimate "villain" of this opera.

The other person we met today, who plays the character Dilara, is actually considered the main character of the opera. The character is a Muslim American who after 9-11 tries to figure out if he identifies more strongly as a Muslim or as an American. It was so interesting to hear him talk about why this quandary is important and what his interpretation of what it must have felt like to be a Muslim American after 9-11.

In his real life Arun Mukherjee is a political activist -- very much against the war in Iraq. And when we continue filming with him tomorrow he says he will take part in an antiwar rally -- but we'll see how that pans out. If that doesn't happen we will shoot him in his weekly political meeting on Friday ... he is a leader in this group that is known for their huge rallies in opposition to the war -- so we'll follow this closely. Last weekend there was a rally that drew half a million people -- the largest rally so far in Asia they tell me.

Actually, it is a very compelling time to be in Kolkata. As a city it is known for its activism, with never a month going by without a citywide strike protesting some intrusion on worker's rights. The state of Bengal has been run for 27 years by India's most extreme left communist party -- which is direct opposition to the ruling party in Delhi (the BJP).

The latest cause they've taken on is the war in Iraq and everywhere are these incredible posters that shout out things like: BREAD NOT BOMBS, or REAL MOTIVE: with an illustration of Bush with hand on a gas pump, and another with a gun, or VULTURE'S EYE, which shows Bush with the wings of an angel holding a bomb as he floats over Iraq.

What I love is that politics take a back seat to the actors' dedication to their art and the theater. They are paid next to nothing for this and you can tell they love their work -- so it makes for a great story.

I remembered at one point today that with most Indian movies, plays etc, there is a passionate love story -- so I asked the main character (the Muslim American) about this. He laughed and said "Of course!" It turns out that he falls madly in love with a freelance journalist named Selena and their love story is a central theme in the opera ... and there is even a tragic ending where he dies singing to her. Why of course there's a long death scene -- this is after all an Indian opera!

Take care,
Raney


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-----Original Message-----
From: Raney Aronson
Sent: Sunday, April 06, 2003 11:02 PM
To: Stephen Talbot

Subject: RE: Notes from India 2

hi, needless to say we've been working around the clock so i haven't had a moment to email. the performance was quite something -- like nothing i had seen before. it was very much street theater and very, very low budget -- at times it was incredibly tedious but at other moments vivid and powerful. it went on for almost 4 hours - so we have plenty to choose from! and our night on saturday night (of course we hung out with the actors and producers afterward) didn't end until 5 a.m. arun and my shooter have both been total sports with these extreme hours. i'll send more details later this evening. take care, raney


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-----Original Message-----
From: Stephen Talbot
Sent: Monday, April 07, 2003 10:42 AM
To: 'Raney Aronson'

Subject: RE: Notes from India 2

Wonderful, Raney. This is filmmaking by exhaustion. Like the early days of talking pictures in Hollywood -- moviemaking around the clock.

Actually, the play sounds amazing -- very Indian. Four hours, my god!

I hope you, Arun and your camerawoman manage to get some sleep.

Steve


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-----Original Message-----
From: Raney Aronson
Sent: Wednesday, April 09, 2003 12:42 AM
To: Stephen Talbot

Subject: Notes from India 3

Hi everyone,

So this is the first moment I've been able to breath in a few days -- late last night we completed shooting the story! My shooter left on Sunday, and we've been making do with a local person. It's been quite a whirlwind ... Arun and I are both tired -- and maybe have a touch of sickness, but we're still doing great.

I'll start with the most recent news and move backward ... last night we decided to hire a local group of traditional folk musicians to play some music for us that we recorded on DAT [Digital Audio Track]. It turns out our local sound guy is totally hooked in with the music scene here. The songs are all old traditional Bengali folk songs, so they should work great with the rest of the story.

Overall the story went well. Arun did a good job, and we definitely have a lot of material (some compelling, some not) from the performance. The response from the crowd was varied and interesting ... and the late night w/the actors and the producers made for a funny scene.

It was a little unsettling because we found that bin Laden was definitely portrayed as a positive guy -- looking out for his countrymen and the poor. The Northern Alliance was shown to be bastards, rapists (yes, there were TWO rapes -- really upsetting scenes -- but apparently it's part of the formula for the jatra to include a rape).

The misdeeds of the Taliban were basically ignored. Bush (not really Bush it turns out, but a spokesman for him) was shown to be a fool, and Americans shown to be without a care in the world before 9-11 (dancing in a disco). To say the least the performance was a bit surreal -- but I do think it will make for a great few minutes in the report.

Arun really bonded with the lead actor (also named Arun) and that was quite touching a few times. At one point he asked if they considered him American or Indian, and someone in the room said: "On the outside you look like an American, but on the inside you have the heart of an Indian person." So it got a little emotional.

The serious side of the story came from some very serious and angry antiwar rallies ... very intense, and very much anti-American. It was a bit overwhelming to navigate at times, but overall we felt pretty safe -- even though they were chanting "Death to America!" When people talk to us, they'd always make the distinction between the American government (namely Bush, whom they hate, and hang in effigy) and the people.

We filmed Arun (the actor) at an antiwar rally outside of Kolkata. At first it seemed like a small crowd but all of a sudden we were in a crowd of thousands. That's the way it is in India -- things escalate quickly.

Other scenes -- a heavy (early) monsoon rain where we all got drenched and couldn't stop laughing, INSANE traffic, and an adventure buying whiskey on our way to the actor's house for dinner, protests outside our hotel (a nice one) because of labor disputes, a top fashion model show at our hotel with a slew of beautiful Indian models -- in stark contrast to the low-budget street theater bin Laden jatra. Arun talked to camera throughout of course!

At one point before the jatra performance I watched a man who was manning the lights and saw that he did so on a slide with his feet and his hands (you'll see the footage -- it's wild) and I thought to myself -- this is the really wonderful part of my job: seeing things I could never have imagined.

Take care,
Raney


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