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While the rest of the world continues to search for Osama bin
Laden, FRONTLINE/World correspondent Arun Rath has found
America's most-wanted man -- or a theatrical facsimile of him
-- on the streets of Calcutta. In April 2003, Rath traveled
to India to see a wildly successful jatra, or street
opera, about September 11 and its aftermath. For Rath, a New
York-based journalist who witnessed the events of 9/11 firsthand,
the mythical version he found in India is far more surprising
and ultimately disturbing than he ever expected.
Rath's story takes place in Calcutta, best known in the West for overpopulation and poverty, but in fact a place churning with art, culture and political debate. Rath arrives as the war is raging in Iraq, and Hindus and Muslims are putting aside their deep-seated differences to join in heated protests against America's actions
In the days preceding the performance, Rath meets many of the players involved in putting the opera together. The first of these are Gautam Chakrabarty and Tinkari Goswami, the producers who dreamed it up and whose previous productions include shows about Ho Chi Minh and Hitler. Chakrabarty says they picked bin Laden because he was big in the headlines, a frequent source of plot and character for the jatra. They hoped it would be popular with the crowd, many of whom often have no access to newspapers or media. They were right -- Osama bin Laden is turning out to be their biggest hit yet.
Rath next meets Amit Pradhan, the man beset with the daunting task of portraying Osama bin Laden. Rath asks him how it feels to play the most hated man in America. "I try to portray the facts about bin Laden to people who may not know about him," the actor says. "Is he really this vicious terrorist or just a devout Muslim? I just want to make them understand that."
Pradhan says this play, with Hindu actors portraying Muslims, has met with some resistance; some outraged people have asked them not to perform in their neighborhoods. The government has threatened to shut down the production because any drama dealing with religious conflict could resonate with long-simmering Hindu-Muslim tension and provoke unrest.
But the opera is not only about religious conflict. Like all jatras, this one, Roth discovers, also contains a love story. In a small sweltering room in Calcutta, Rath meets Arun Mukherjee, the romantic lead. Ironically, Mukherjee portrays an Indian-American journalist who lives in New York, just like Arun Rath. Both men marvel at the coincidence. Mukherjee is one of Calcutta's most sought-after actors, but prefers to perform only in street theater because it's one of the oldest forms of Indian folk art. "It's an effective way to reach people," he says. "And if they don't like the performance they'll tell you -- to your face!"
Just before the show, Rath heads to the green room, which is more of a lit-up sidewalk than anything else, but the backstage tension is no different than in any other theater. This is certainly accentuated by the oppressive 100-degree heat that frustrates the actors in their attempts to apply makeup to their sweaty faces.
After a few touch-and-go setbacks, the opera gets under way just before midnight. The late hour doesn't seem to matter, even to the many children in the crowd, despite that the performance carries on for three and a half hours.
The show begins with scenes of New York before September 11, people dancing without a care in the world. The tragedy of the day brings on a somber mood for a time, but the mood picks up when, in a love scene reminiscent of Bollywood musicals, two journalist lovers are reunited at Ground Zero. Soon afterward, bin Laden appears and rejoices in his victory, celebrating that Bush is too afraid even to return to the White House.
And then, Rath notes, the opera takes a surreal turn as Bush aides appear on stage. They appear as bloodthirsty, maniacal men who seethe with rage and are even more despicable than bin Laden himself. "Let corpses of babies and old people -- civilians -- litter the streets!" one of the men proclaims. Then when the scene shifts to Afghanistan, American-backed Northern Alliance soldiers are depicted raping women and killing babies, then celebrating in drunken dances.
But perhaps the biggest shock of the play is the ending, when bin Laden returns to the stage, this time portrayed as a Muslim Robin Hood of sorts, protecting his countrymen, especially women and children. And the Indian-American journalist portrayed by Mukherjee ends up so upset with America's policies that he abruptly abandons his career and becomes an antiwar activist.
In the final scene, the journalist is assassinated while protesting for peace in Afghanistan, killed not by the Taliban or al Qaeda but by an American soldier. The closing message is clear: American imperialism is more savage and cruel than bin Laden's terrorism.
And what's worse, Rath realizes, is the chilling reality that this take on Osama bin Laden and September 11 might be the only version that endures for many in the crowd. Indeed, after the show, Rath speaks with several children, who confirm that they used to think that bin Laden was a bad guy, but the jatra changed their minds. As one girl puts it, "Now I feel like I've seen a more human side of bin Laden."
In the small hot hours of the morning, Rath leaves the opera
with the thought that he found a lot more than he bargained
for. He expected for the opera's message to resonate with radical
Muslims, but to see this reaction in the Hindus is something
entirely different. And yet Rath recognizes, in a moment of
more perplexity than clarity, that the same cast and crew who
performed this anti-American message onstage has been treating
him all along with warmth and friendship.
David, Julia & Sasha Novack