The Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 continues to haunt the lives of the victims. RAJ S. RANGARAJAN looks at "Bhopal: a play" which explores the human and political reality behind the disaster.
The playwright Rahul Varma.
ALMOST 20 years ago, December 3, 1984, to be precise, Bhopal hit the headlines. Not for any crowning achievement but for a dubious, deadly reason the leak of 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas (NIC) when a valve in the Union Carbide plant's underground storage tank snapped under pressure. The catastrophe killed thousands of people in a single night and left many hapless victims struggling to live.
While the average person does not think of the catastrophe, you cannot stop creative, concerned people such as actors and playwrights from expressing their dismay. One of the ways that Rahul Varma, artistic director, Teesri Duniya Theatre based in Montreal, showed his support for the Bhopal cause was by writing a play about the tragedy in English and motivating a Canadian theatre group, Cahoots Theatre Projects to stage it. Guillermo Verdecchia, artistic director, Cahoots agreed to direct the play and picked a Canadian of Indian origin (Yashoda Ranganathan) to play the vital role of Izzat. The cast was multinational. Imali Perera (of Sri Lankan origin) played Madiha, assistant to the CEO. Canadian Tom Butler was the infamous Warren Anderson, chief of Carbide Worldwide. Errol Sitahal from the West Indies was the Indian politician Jaganlal. Sugith Varughese was Devraj, the Indian CEO. Two others of Candian origin were multi-talented Brooke Johnson as Dr. Sonya Labonte, a researcher-doctor and Michael Miranda as a Canadian official.
"Bhopal: The Play" staged in Toronto, for the first time, explores the human and political reality behind the disaster. Built around seven characters ranging from the company CEO to an Indian politician to a dedicated Canadian doctor to a destitute slum dweller, "Bhopal" is moving and occasionally tends to mock the suffering and helplessness prevalent in today's global village. The play was staged in India last year as "Zahreeli Hawa".
Scenes from "Bhopal"
Varma says the script was written in three languages Chattisgarhi, Hindi and English. The secret lay in meshing the actors of different backgrounds into a production for North America. "People who benefit by globalisation are not those who suffer. While it is broadly proven that the U.S. has taken its revenge for the fall of the Twin Towers in New York, no one has taken the responsibility for the corporate terrorism that killed 20,000 in Bhopal."
Breathing life into a 19-year-old incident is difficult but Varma has succeeded.
He declares: "The U.S. is constantly talking of 9/11 but we, in India, had our 9/11 nearly 20 years ago. I have made an effort to portray the indifference and callous attitude that multinationals adopt towards the Third World."
The play begins with a song in Chattisgarhi-Hindi by Izzat (Yashoda) the slum dweller who lives in the shadow of the plant. Yashoda, who does not speak Hindi, learnt the language for the play with ragas supplied by her parents, both of whom are trained Carnatic musicians.
Yashoda has been trained in Bharatanatyam and is a certified yoga instructor and plays classical/improvisational violin.
"Bhopal" encourages contemporary myths about Indian politicians being corrupt and about the Chalta hai attitude that keeps India buzzing. In a reference to the pre-certifications, Devraj says, "This is India, we must bribe, we sometimes certify three months in advance to get the inspectors off our backs." Keeping up with stereotypes, as it were, Warren Anderson is a loud leader who is constantly seen talking on a mobile phone to India. It is a moot point that in 1984 mobile phones were not in regular use.
Izzat, with an infected infant, is a focal point for two related stories. One deals with the devastation to individuals and families; the other with the condescending attitude Western nations have towards developing ones. A poignant moment in the play is when Izzat pleads for immediate help with her infant dying from the after-effects of the gas leak while researcher Sonya has to deal with a bureaucrat questioning her research.
"Bhopal's" irony and humour clashes at times when the Indian CEO Devraj tries to be transparently sincere while Jaganlal's light banter about the "Indian work ethic" goes above the head of some Canadians in the audience. Jaganlal declares to the Carbide chief: "The dead have stopped dying" in a candid reference to the callousness of local officials and the lack of concern displayed by the American bosses. The blame game continues not only in the play but also in real life 19 years later.
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