Frontline World

INDIA, Starring Osama Bin Laden, June 2003

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

Backstage With the Producer

Confronting New Myths

Background, About Jatras, Freedom of Expression

Indian Theater, Reaction to September 11, Media




Interview With Arun Rath: Confronting New Myths
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.

Arun Rath in the office of Star Opera

Arun Rath in the office of Star Opera, the production company that has been performing the jatra Osama Bin Laden.
What was it like to take on this story in light of your experience covering the terrorist attacks?

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 Producers].

How do you think your identity as an Indian American shaped the story?

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 time.

Had you ever been to Calcutta?

Ten years earlier.

Arun Rath and translator Nilayan Dutta

Arun Rath and translator Nilayan Dutta on a street in Calcutta.
Did it seem different?

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 Bombay.

Amit Pradhan and Arun Rath shootballoons at an amusement stand

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.
How did the religious tensions between the Hindus and Muslims fit in?

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 primarily Muslims?

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.

ath and Pradhan at a fair in Calcutta

Rath and Pradhan at the same fair in Calcutta, trying to order a drink.
What are these jatras like in American terms?

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 theater instead.

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.

Group portrait taken after the show

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.
That doesn't seem like a very subtle point, especially when you're blowing away the romantic lead.

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.

Kirstin Johnson and Arun Rath

Camerawoman Kirstin Johnson and FRONTLINE/World reporter Arun Rath in a sculptor's shop in Calcutta.
What did you think of Ahmed Prada, who plays bin Laden?

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 Arun.

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 expecting.

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 was Indian.

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.

Posing for a photo after the performance

After the performance (l.-r.): translator Nilayan Dutta, Amit Pradhan as Osama bin Laden and Arun Rath.
Were they surprised when you said, "Wait a minute, what's the bottom line here, what about the facts?"

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 antiwar protests.

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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