Dramatic expose

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

A Bengali play based on extensive research and investigation creates a genre of its own.

"The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life."

- Oscar Wilde

IN his latest play, "Ishtishadi" (The Suicide Squad), leftist playwright Sangram Guha has created a stir of a kind not encountered recently in Kolkata's theatre world. It is an expose of the sort encountered in fiction only - the events presented on stage are all too terrifyingly real and verified from informed sources. Complete with terrorists, drugs and arms smugglers, and corruption at the highest levels of government, "Ishtishadi" tears the mask off the country's defence establishment and points an accusing finger at the person who held the highest position in the Ministry concerned at the time when the events depicted in the play unfolded. Guha's Spandan is one of the theatre groups affiliated to the left-wing Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), which was founded in 1943 and is closely associated with the communist movement in the country.

The play begins with an incident in Poonch district of Kashmir on May 13, 2000 during Operation Leech II, when the Indian Army organised a surrender camp for Lashker-e-Taiba militants. In the course of the surrender, the Army, in an apparently unprovoked act, suddenly opened fire on the unarmed militants. The order came from the commanding officer in the location, Brigadier Veid. Subedar Yusuf raised the lone voice of protest, which fell on deaf ears. However, a few militants managed to escape, including a woman named Farah Anwar.

Yusuf was subsequently court-martialled on grounds of spreading communal discord in the armed forces. In his defence, Yusuf wrote a letter to the Chief of the Army Staff and the Ministry of Defence, giving a detailed account of the incident. In spite of repeated threats, he refused to withdraw his letter, and soon after was shot in the leg while patrolling the Line of Control (LoC). The apparent accident crippled him for life.

Taking up Yusuf's case, a friend and colleague, Major Jaipal, met Admiral Krishna, who was sacked from the Navy on unproven charges. In the course of the conversation, Krishna recollected similar incidents in Manipur, Assam and Kashmir, where surrendering militants, who were involved in smuggling of drugs and arms, were killed, and every time, the officer-in-charge was Brigadier Veid, a close ally of the Defence Minister.

With Krishna's reference, Jaipal got in touch with Dona Bedi, a young lawyer, around whom the plot revolves. Dona starts investigating the case. On September 11, 2001, Dona got a call from the escaped militant Farah Anwar, who was given shelter by M.K. Hassan, a professor at Delhi University. It is from her that Dona got to know of the attack on the World Trade Centre (WTC) and Mohammed Atta of Al Qaeda. Atta had apparently contacted Farah the day before 9/11.

From here events turn from the sinister to the terrifying. Intelligence Department personnel, tracing the call, lands up at the professor's residence to find him killed and Farah missing. An inquiry commission is set up, headed by Mahesh Srivastav and Satish Saxena, to establish the probable link between Farah and Al Qaeda. Dona's endeavour to unearth the truth lands her in prison, under the provisions of the Prevention Of Terrorism Act. On December 28, 2002, she died in Delhi's Tihar Jail.

The whereabouts of Farah remains unknown. Subedar Yusuf is languishing in a mental asylum in Ranchi. Since his accident and discharge from the Army, nobody has been able even to get close to him, let alone extract any information. It is important to note that within 72 hours of Dona Bedi's notice to the court, all the major players in this real-life drama were removed from the stage. Yusuf was practically exiled, Professor Hassan was killed, Dona was arrested, Farah apparently escaped, Srivastav was taken off the case (he later resigned from service) and Dona's friend and confidante Gunjan disappears.

The play was so controversial that intelligence personnel flew down from New Delhi to watch it. Sangram Guha said: "We were told that the West Bengal Police believe that we are actually a front for whoever has written the play. We were categorically asked who it was. They feel it must have been a police officer, or else it would be impossible to have access to the kind of information this play deals with."

But the fact is that the entire research work for the play was done by Guha himself over three and a half years. The initial part of the research was based on the four articles on Operation Leech II written by Praveen Swami and published in Frontline. "The kind of help I received from the media was unbelievable. Even journalists in so-called right-wing newspapers, who knew what was happening and wanted something done, came forward with their support," he said.

What surprised Guha most was the cooperation he received from the bureaucracy. He said: "They gave me very valuable information. I'd build on that and keep going back to them, and they would correct me and filled in the gaps. This was a new discovery for me as far as the bureaucracy was concerned. Informed sources in the defence establishment showed me how surrenders were organised through CDs etc, and I realised the incredible commitment of the armed forces to their work. To them the motherland is a structured passion. I have tried to show this in my play."

After his research, it took Guha four months to write the script. Considering the sensitive nature of the subject he did not show the script even to his colleagues in Spandan. Instead he went directly to Delhi to have the play vetted by his sources in the defence service. It was only after they confirmed the accuracy of the facts did Spandan begin the play's first rehearsals. "Strangely, while writing the script, I was being warned repeatedly by various sections who should not have even been aware of my project. It was obviously leaked perhaps by certain sources contacted in the course of the investigation," said Guha.

But then controversy is not alien to Spandan. An earlier play of it, "16 Millimetre", about the attack on Parliament House on December 13, 2001, was even mentioned in the final verdict of the Supreme Court acquitting S.A.R. Geelani, the Delhi University professor who was one of the accused in the case.

Spandan's popularity has been growing fast among the people of West Bengal. Not only are almost all the shows going houseful, but the reception from the audience is overwhelming. The stunned silence at the end of every performance, followed by a thunderous prolonged applause speaks more for the play than any review or critical appreciation. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's reaction was no less effusive. "It's a fantastic play with brilliant research work. This art of exposing actual incidents by micro-level research is very necessary in our society today," he told Frontline.

The artistic aspect of the play is equally important in that it enhances the significance of its serious subject matter. The predominant colours black and white, standing for news, are complemented with red, grey and white; red for terror, grey for anguish and white for the triumph of humanity over all odds. The background score is based on Western classical music to give a sense of speed and grandeur - the main instruments are drums and the flute.

Spandan recently received an invitation from the German government to perform "Ishtishadi" at the Biennale Bonn Festival this year. Soon after, the group will visit France with the play in response to another invitation.

Amateur theatre groups in Kolkata have all along had a strong social commitment. This is, however, the first time that a little-known theatre group has drawn the serious attention of the intelligence agencies of the Government of India and has been invited abroad to perform.

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