Iraq on stage

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

A Bengali play based on the American occupation of Iraq makes waves in Kolkata.

A NEW play, "Operation Flush", has taken the intellectual circles of Kolkata by storm. Produced by the theatre group Spandan and the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), the play is about the United States' occupation of Iraq, specifically about the Abu Ghraib prison tortures. From a subject of topical interest, the play takes the audience to the profound issue of the new face of imperialism.

Playwright Sangram Guha told Frontline: "The idea of this play came from Frontline in which the PNAC [Project for New American Century] was exposed (Frontline, May 21). We made further enquiries about PNAC through friends in the U.S., and finally obtained a copy of the Human Rights trial that was held in California on May 20. Apart from that, we also used reports from Amnesty International, the Human Rights Commission and the inquiry report of U.S. Major-General Antonio Tagauba." The play is based on true incidents, and all the main characters represent real people.

Almost the entire play takes place is set in a courtroom where Lt. Colonel Nathan Sassaman of the 4th Infantry Division, in charge of the Abu Ghraib prison, and cell commander Luke Harding are facing trial for torturing prisoners-of-war (PoWs). Nicholas Terse, the lawyer of the Human Rights Commission, played by director Samudra Guha, exposes through cross-examination the fact that it was not just the PoWs who were subjected to torture, but also the common people of Iraq, picked at random. There is more to the torture than just human depravity; a far more sinister plan is at work directed by a U.S. organisation - the PNAC, which has converted Abu Ghraib into a prison laboratory with human beings as guinea pigs. The idea behind these tortures is to observe the exact point of time when the prisoner gives in psychologically and at that moment collect a blood sample from the person and send to the U.S. The sample is then analysed to determine the level and duration of fear of the tortured person, and also to see if the impact of terror can be perpetuated through the genetic structure of the prisoner.

A common motif in many of Spandan's productions is how science, in the hands of the wrong people, can be used for destructive purposes. This play too, shows how science is being used to create and sustain fear in the minds of the oppressed. What makes the play all the more chilling is that the situations are very real. It brings to mind the famous German dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt's epochal play "The Physicists", depicting how three physicists are manipulated by malignant powers to achieve their selfish ends.

HAD it had not been for Sajida Makhmal, a spirited young woman selling bread and vegetables for a living in a slum in the Khmer pocket, 82 km south of Baghdad, the atrocities at Abu Ghraib would have continued without anyone getting to know of them. Sajida is among the Iraqis picked up arbitrarily by Sassaman for the cruel experiment. Even after repeated rape and torture for a prolonged period, her blood specimen does not show a trace of fright. She eventually manages to escape and brings the living hell of Abu Ghraib to the notice of the Human Rights Commission.

The play is not just a political drama or a documentation of atrocities perpetrated by the strong upon the weak, but a story about the human spirit that cannot be broken. Sajida, based on an Iraqi woman named Noor, is a symbol of that spirit, which like Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, cries out: "... To bow and sue for grace/ With suppliant knee and deify his power/ ...That were an ignominy and shame beneath/ This downfall..."

Yet Noor is no mighty Lucifer, nor the kind of heroic figure that tragedies are made of. She is just an impoverished peasant girl, and all she wants from life is that the U.S. warmongers leave her country, so she can marry her lover Al Samira (the man who provided the photographs of the Abu Ghraib tortures to the media) and settle down to a normal life. Yet, this humble, uneducated girl refused be scared by the representatives of the U.S.

THE denouement of the play is indeed poignant. The entire final scene is enacted without dialogue - only haunting music plays in the background. The dignity and the resilience of the oppressed is highlighted through this silent protest.

The sets and the lighting in the play are very interesting. The court scenes are played out under a stark, white light. The flashback scenes set in Iraq are all in green, purple and yellow, denoting innocence and vibrancy; Red is used for the torture scenes, and for the conclusion, dark blue to signify pain.

After seeing "Operation Flush", West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, himself a playwright, commented: "I feel totally intoxicated after seeing this drama. It is something that has never happened in Indian theatre. The music can be compared to that of Italian films. It is really a brilliant experiment, which enchanted the audience including myself."

The Chief Minister is not the only person to be impressed by the play. Writer Sunil Gangopadhyay said: "In the last 30 years I have never seen such a brilliant political drama in Kolkata theatre. It is a total drama where everything happened on the stage logically. It is really an experience for the audience." Noted film and theatre personality Soumitra Chatterjee said the play had "a tremendous script and commendable performances".

Samudra Guha told Frontline: "I wanted to convey the feeling that the American administration has lost not only its heart and soul but also its place of respect in the world. The conscience of America is being suppressed and it is the Rumsfelds and the Bushes who are today its voice." There are moments in the play when American soldiers who have been thrust into a barbaric situation reflect upon the uselessness of the war and the unnecessary loss of lives. There is also the omen of the next generation of victims inheriting the legacy of hatred.

Although "Operation Flush" may be the only play in India with the occupation of Iraq as the theme, it is not the first to be based on international events. In the 1960s, with the Vietnam war raging, theatre group Simantik Sakha staged "Vietnam" and Sampradik Sakha, "Deshe Deshe". Apart from these, there have been numerous anti-imperialist plays with South Africa and Cambodia as the setting.

Actor and director Sisir Sen, secretary of the State unit of IPTA, told Frontline: "Those of us who believe in internationalism have to speak out wherever there is injustice and feel empathy for the victims. We can't lead a cocooned existence outside the international spectrum. There is an unbreakable link between our workers' struggle in the country and those resisting injustice and oppression outside. This is what the unity of the workers of the world is about."

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