Arun Rath was at home in Brooklyn on the morning of September
11, 2001, when the World Trade Center was destroyed. The 33-year-old
Indian American, a FRONTLINE/World correspondent and
senior producer for the NPR broadcast On the Media, swung
into action the next day, making his way to midtown Manhattan to help direct
special coverage of the terrorist attacks for National Public
Radio. Against that backdrop he might seem an unusual pick to
cover the story of an Indian folk opera that had Osama bin Laden
as one of the story's main characters. Rath told FRONTLINE/World
Web editor Douglas Foster about the ironies of this particular
matchup -- and about other surprises in the reporting as the
"Starring Osama Bin Laden" story unfolded.
What was it like to take on this story in light of your experience
covering the terrorist attacks?
Arun Rath in the office of Star Opera, the production company that has been
performing the jatra Osama Bin Laden.
Obviously I was intrigued. I was at home in Brooklyn when
the mayhem happened. From that point on, I just felt very lucky
to be a working journalist -- because I had stuff to do. If
I had just been at home watching TV when the attacks happened
-- without feeling like I was watching it for a reason -- I
would have just gone crazy.
It's true, there's a kind of emotional buffering that happens
when you're covering a disaster as a journalist.
When that emergency role kicks in, it allows you to maintain
a little bit of distance from the terror and the horror of it.
I was even aware at the time of being very grateful for that
little bit of distance.
So were you apprehensive about going to India?
To be honest, (I had) sort of a morbid curiosity. I'm reluctant
to say this, for fear of being misunderstood, but I was in and
around lower Manhattan and walking through the clouds of smoke
as the fires burned for a good couple of months afterward. I
was walking through that every day, and one of the ways you
deal with it is through a certain morbid humor. Gallows humor
gets you through the day. Maybe for me, even more than for somebody
who might have been in middle America on that date, I thought
I could deal with an operatic take on 9/11. I was curious to
see what they could do with it. After all, this is the city
where producers are putting on "Springtime for Hitler" [song from The
How do you think your identity as an Indian American shaped
I haven't been to India a lot. I was the first one in my family
born in America. This is actually only my third trip. So it's
strange because I can't quite be in India as a tourist. At the
same time, it's not my home at all. And so it's got this very
peculiar sense of being both alien and familiar at the same
Had you ever been to Calcutta?
Ten years earlier.
Did it seem different?
Arun Rath and translator Nilayan Dutta on a street in Calcutta.
The things you had to prepare yourself for the most -- meaning
the crowds, the heat, the filth, not to put too fine a point
on it -- those I was already ready for, from the books that
I had read and having been there before. The things that are
different 10 years down the line: There are cybercafÈs all over
the place. They're hard not to notice. Calcutta is a very sophisticated,
very cosmopolitan place, and I guess it's not really surprising
that cybercafÈs would catch on so quickly there, with all the
educated people and the universities. There have always been
people arguing politics and philosophy in cafÈs in Calcutta
and that's not new.
That sense of Calcutta as a booming cultural center may
come as a surprise to some viewers.
You're hitting upon what's really interesting about Calcutta.
It's so alive culturally. The image that we have in the West
is of the "City of Joy," of Mother Teresa, of barefoot rickshaw
drivers who have to pound the pavement in extreme poverty. But
Calcutta is also very much like New York in a lot of ways. It's
more the cultural heart of India than any other place. In Bengal,
the state where Calcutta is located, educated elites were the
first to embrace parts of British culture -- organized education
system, common law for everyone and that sort of thing -- and
then, funnily enough, it was the Bengalis who were also the
first to really organize resistance to British rule, the first
to try to kick them out.
It's a very literate culture. India's most famous poet, [Rabindranath]
Tagore, comes from Bengal. Bengalis are notoriously proud of
Bengali language and culture and art. Also, Calcutta, like New
York, tends to run very much to the left of the rest of the
country. This is a socialist country to start off with. Calcutta
and Bengal have been run by communists for nearly 30 years.
It's so much more politically charged than Delhi and even than
How did the religious tensions between the Hindus and Muslims
Amit Pradhan (l.), the actor who plays Osama bin Laden, and Arun Rath shoot
balloons at an amusement stand at a religious fair in Calcutta.
Bengal was cut in two during partition, the east part becoming
East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and so there's some old bitter
blood. There was rioting in Calcutta at various times. Having
said that, I've got to add that we saw Hindus and Muslims uniting
to protest the U.S. actions in Iraq. At the time I was there,
the tensions between them seemed to be hidden below the surface.
Was it surprising to find Hindus and Muslims protesting
against the war together?
It was more of an indication of the depth and universality
of the anger against America than an indication of progress
in bridging the gaps between them. If you scratch the surface,
the level of hatred can be startling. For instance, one of the
drivers that we had one evening did rant, when there were no
Muslims around, about the problems with Muslims.
What did he say?
That Muslims cannot be trusted, and that bin Laden's actions
were an indication of that. He was saying really awful things
-- talking about Muslims almost as if they were animals.
Were the actors and the audience members at the jatra
It was a fairly mixed crowd. The neighborhood that we were
in was primarily Hindu, but Calcutta is quite a mixed city.
What is a jatra anyway?
Jatra is a very old form of folk drama. Initially, jatras
started out as religious dramas. They were intended to convey
Hindu myths, for illiterate villagers who wouldn't be able to
read them. They took subject matter from history. Taking material
from the headlines is a fairly new innovation that's only been
going on since the 1960s. Jatra has been going through kind
of a rebirth, which started in Calcutta. Now [jatras] tend to
originate in Calcutta and they'll tour around and visit rural
places, where it's a huge deal, a whole evening's entertainment.
Some of these production companies, like the one that put
on Osama bin Laden, call themselves operas. The troupe that
did this play was called the Star Opera, and they were actually
more operalike than I was expecting. There was kind of an overture.
The musicians played this piece, going through some of the musical
themes, that lasted for about 10 minutes.
What are these jatras like in American terms?
Rath and Pradhan at the same fair in Calcutta, trying to order a drink.
It's difficult to think of an analogy for something that really
is so homegrown and grassroots. Community theater is not really
a good analogy because it doesn't go back for hundreds of years.
America has such a culture of displacement that it's hard to
think of something that has the same kind of historical continuity
and a sense of vital place in the community. It was actually
kind of magical and inspiring to me that these people can
go to see the movies but they're actually choosing to see live
One of the producers of the Star Opera tells you in your
piece that jatras are staged so people can understand and see
what really happened. But is the audience really coming to these
plays for something like news?
Yes, but more disturbing was that the play seemed to change
a number of minds about bin Laden. He certainly came off much
better than the Americans. It was troubling to hear this reaction,
especially from the children. Bin Laden comes across as a Muslim
Robin Hood. You can talk all you want about the antecedents
of 9/11 -- and discuss what actually made bin Laden what he
is -- but in terms of what he is now, there's no getting away
from the fact that he is an evil man. He's not a Muslim Robin
Hood, he's not a protector of the weak.
What were you expecting of the play?
I knew the jatra would be melodramatic, that here would have
to be a love story and it would take place against the background
of bin Laden and the war in Afghanistan. But I wasn't expecting
him to come off in the positive way. The Americans being cartoonishly
evil -- that was the big shock.
The producer tells you on screen that he opposes terrorism
and that he doesn't intend to present bin Laden as a hero. So
how do you explain the disconnect between what he says he wanted
to accomplish and what he apparently achieved?
I wouldn't accuse him of being disingenuous because there
is a plea for peace in the play. That's how the play
ends. But (the) plea for peace (comes) from this Indian-American
journalist, the protagonist, who is then shot dead by Americans
-- not as an accident but in a killing done under orders from
higher-ups because he's considered dangerous to what the United
States is trying to advance.
That doesn't seem like a very subtle point, especially when
you're blowing away the romantic lead.
After the show, in the alley that was a theater (l.-r.): soundman Sumeru
Mukhopadhyay, camerawoman Kirstin Johnson, Amit Pradhan in costume as Osama
bin Laden, producer Raney Aronson, Arun Rath, translator Nilayan Dutta.
Exactly. There are actually no subtle points in the
play. It's very over-the-top, very melodramatic, very much in
the Indian style of acting, with a lot of wailing and screaming
-- more like Olivier as Othello than like the modern version.
Certainly bin Laden is portrayed as somewhat as a fanatic,
but you don't see him engaged in a single act of violence. I
was expecting something a bit disturbing, in bad taste maybe,
and we ended up with something a lot more troubling than that.
The producers have done other plays about historical figures,
like Hitler and Ho Chi Minh. How did the bin Laden play compare
in terms of popularity?
It's been their biggest success. We were there for what was
supposed to be the final performance, but then it ended up getting
extended. It's been drawing huge crowds.
Since you are also senior producer of On the Media
for National Public Radio, let me ask a question this way: If
you'd been doing a piece on the opera as a piece about a news
operation, as opposed to a story about a cultural phenomenon,
how would you have judged it?
We certainly would have taken them to task for their betrayal
of the facts. Some people are not reading newspapers, not watching
cable news or the BBC, and this is the version of reality they're
getting. Because it's not a news organization, the play has
the quality of myth. I worry that it has even more persistence,
as a result, than just a bad news report. People are skeptical
about the news anyway. Given how popular the play was, the message
clearly has resonance. If this is any kind of barometer of how
the battle for hearts and minds is going, it's disturbing.
What did you think of Ahmed Prada, who plays bin Laden?
Camerawoman Kirstin Johnson and FRONTLINE/World reporter Arun Rath in
a sculptor's shop in Calcutta.
He detached himself from his character. He told me that he
doesn't approve of bin Laden's message, but he's an actor and
this role is his bread and butter. He can't turn down roles!
Anyway, all actors relish the idea of playing a villain, especially
a complicated villain and a villain on this scale. Any actor
in the world, Indian or whatever, would just drool over getting
to play bin Laden.
There's an amazing moment in your report when you come
face to face with your doppelganger -- an Indian actor playing
an Indian-American journalist coming to the region to try to
make sense of what's happened. To top it off, he's also named
I was excited to meet him and put questions to him. You see,
he'd been trying to get inside the head of an Indian-American
New Yorker, getting the emotions down and the patterns of speech
for his role. So I was curious to know if I was what he was
Were you what he was expecting?
More or less. He had his own take on the character, so I don't
think that I really altered anything he had planned to do. But
he was completely thrilled to be making this connection. It
was interesting for me, too, to be talking with him about being
Indian. I put the question to them about how they considered
me, Indian or American. One of the women said a sweet thing
-- that outwardly I seem American but that she hoped my soul
The character Arun plays is torn by conflicting loyalties.
Did you feel torn?
To a certain extent, yes. What happened with Arun's character
is that he's an Indian American and he's a Muslim. After the
attacks, when President Bush uses the word "crusade," it calls
into question (the character's) sense of American identity. He'd always
thought of himself as American. I did feel a little bit of that
in watching this play. I've got mixed feelings about the way
that the United States conducts itself throughout the world.
To put it as this play does, equating what might be termed American
imperialism with the terrorism of bin Laden, that obviously
rubbed me the wrong way.
After having formed a bond with these people it was difficult
to have to confront them about this difference I was feeling.
Having confronted them about it, there was frustration too.
Maybe this was just problem of bad translation -- but I think
it was something more. There was just a way in which we were
just not seeing eye to eye.
Were they surprised when you said, "Wait a minute, what's
the bottom line here, what about the facts?"
After the performance (l.-r.): translator Nilayan Dutta, Amit Pradhan as
Osama bin Laden and Arun Rath.
Not entirely surprised. When I got really specific on the
points that were bothering me, the producers and the actors
tended to say, "Well, it is entertainment." Of course, to be
fair, there are those in the United States who might make a similar point. It's like a Noam Chomsky opera about 9/11,
about imperialism being as bad as terrorism.
That said, India does have an ambivalent relationship with
America. There's an affinity between two, very large, very diverse
democracies. But coming out of the Cold War there's also a certain
amount of distrust because India was one of the nonaligned countries
and the United States had supported Pakistan as a firewall against
Soviet expansion. There's a long history of distrust and a lot
of people who think that the CIA is responsible for everything
bad in the world.
Some of the actors participated in antiwar demonstrations
while you were in Calcutta, didn't they?
Yes, Arun Mukherjee, the romantic lead, is an active member
of the Communist Party, and he was involved with some of the
What was it like for you to be in the middle of those demonstrations?
I certainly never expected to hear chants of "Death to America!"
in an Indian city. I never felt frightened for my own safety
or that of the crew, but it was still chilling to hear. The
vitriol and the anger against Bush in particular was striking.
I've got to say the people were sophisticated, almost to a man,
in being able to say, "Look, we realize it's not the American
people, it's the government. We don't hate America, we don't
hate Americans, we hate what your government is doing." That
tempered the unease.
What was it like to actually be at the performance?
It was unlike anything that I've been to in America. It started
about an hour and a half after it was supposed to start and
ran three and a half hours long with no intermission, from about 11:15pm
until after 3 o'clock in the morning
probably the best time of day to do something like that in Calcutta
because it's most tolerable.
I guess when you're not bombarded by media constantly, you
don't have a TV going constantly in the house, maybe people
have more of an attention span for something that goes on this
long, that is more operatic in this way.
Was it gripping to watch, or tedious?
Tedious isn't the word that I would use because it was so
unlike anything that I had experienced that it was interesting
the entire time. It was fatiguing, though. It's nighttime but
it's still close to 100 degrees and humid. At one point a giant
cockroach crawled up my trouser leg. So I was ready for the
end by the time that it was over, I'll say that much.
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