Thirty years ago, on the fateful night of 2nd December and into the wee hours of 3rd morning, 1984, all hell broke loose in the the city of Bhopal in India. Tank 610 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant, exploded letting loose 30 tons and more of toxic Methyl Isocyanite and other gases into the air. Over 500,000 reportedly inhaled it and while the death toll varies from 3000 to 10000, suffice to say, it is one of the largest industrial disasters the world has ever seen. The story doesn’t end there. In the years that followed, people across the world watched in horror as multinational corporations and corrupt politicians of various stripes came together to put a lid over the disaster.
Thirty years hence, the air is still foul with the stench of politics and money that lorded over human lives. Unlike other disasters, which got global attention by a mixture of activists and artists making stories and movies out of the human suffering, Bhopal has barely registered in the radar of many. If Bhopal were to have happened in today’s socially connected world, the reaction would have been swift and so much more different. The story of Bhopal needs many voices to tell what happened on that fateful night. One such is the Bay Area Drama Company.
Bay Area Drama (BAD) Company is a newly formed theater group in the San Francisco Bay Area. It boasts of thespians with great dramatic pedigree who have come together to form this new entity that will hopefully offer interesting and compelling fare to the local community. Their first production, Bhopal, premiered on the 3rd of December, 2014 at the Sunnyvale Community Center, exactly 30 years from the day it happened. There will be additional shows of Bhopal on 13th and 14th of December at Lohman Theater at the Foothills College campus in Los Altos, CA. Here is my spoiler-free review from the premiere show.
The Sunnyvale Community Center is an intimate auditorium and suits a play like Bhopal to the T. It offers seating for a sizable audience without getting unwieldy. Every seat had an excellent view of the stage. The audio was excellent and overall, felt like a good place for the premiere event.
The event began shortly after 8 pm with a brief introduction about the real life event that was the Bhopal disaster and a very short note on the BAD Company. The stage itself was sparse but for the occasional table or chair brought in during different parts of the play. There was little to no background music but for the haunting vocals of Subhapriya Srivatsan, set to the lyrics of “Ek Zahreeli Hawa (A Poisoned Wind)” by the late Habib Tanvir. Subhapriya’s voice and Sharmi Mukherjee’s graceful moves sets the tone perfectly for the play and in the 2-3 times when Subhapriya reappears, her voice lends gravitas of the situation at hand. Kudos to the director for knowing when to have music and when not to distract from the dialogues.
This play is not about the tragedy that happened on 2nd December. It is the story of the practical, occasionally selfish survivor, Izzat Bai. It is the story of the steadfast believer, the scorned and misled lover, Madiha Akram. It is the story of the NRI who had big dreams and an empty soul, Devraj Sarthi, CEO of Union Carbide India Limited. It is the story of the face in front of a multinational corporation, Warren Anderson. It is the story of the Doctor who knows too much and is repeatedly being silenced, Dr. Sonya Labonte. It is the story of the archetypal Indian politician who will sell his soul for money, Jaganlal Bhandari. And most important of all, it is the story of the 250,000 faceless people of Bhopal whose lives were irrevocably changed that fateful night.
The original script by Rahul Varma is brought to life by these characters, each of whom has a story of their own. Of ambition, of love, of power and of hope. The CEO who says, “Poverty is the biggest environmental hazard. ” goes onto to claim, “Carbide Thunder will roll out of their eyes. Like tears.” If only. If only.
From the early signs of a disaster in the making, to the pieces of the nightmarish puzzle coming together and hurtling towards destruction, the script is tight and the pace is rapid. As Warren Anderson proudly states, “Safety is our No.1 concern,” the viewer knows what is about to happen. And happen it does. The tragedy does not strike until after the first hour of the play. As soon as it arrives with a loud boom, disaster mitigation kicks in amidst death and chaos. And that is the ultimate irony of it all. When corruption and power blinded the eyes of politicians and officials even as bodies were piling up.
Suffice to say, the play is crisp and taut and time flies before you know it.
This to me was the biggest revelation. Rahul Varma’s script is not new. It has been around for years. Bhopal was originally staged in 2001. It is the acting that elevates what is a solid script ot great heights. The seven key artists who potray the protagonists each bring their best to the table and leave nothing unexpressed.
Devraj played by Basab Pradhan is cold and calculating and every minute. His occasional weakness is his love, Madiha played by Neha Goyal. Neha does full justice to the character who is so much in love with Devraj that she cant see past his actions. Jaganlal, the CM is played to a T by Ravi Bhatnagar. Ravi lives and breathes the role of the considerate politician whose true colors are always under a cloud. Phil Wiseman as Pascal Sauve, the Canadian representative shows his political colors while rarely but definitely betraying his humanity.
Sindu Singh taking on the conscience of the play in the form of Dr. Sonya Labonte is a revelation. Her shock at everything that is happening and her utter helplessness is brilliantly conveyed by Sindu. Paul Costello as the villain of the piece, Warren Anderson is fabulous in his role of the true capitalist who cares for nothing more than his corporation and stock price. And last but not in the very least, Kamala Subramaniam as Izzat Bai is the representation of the victim of the system. She blows away anything and everything you come to expect from the role with a bravura performance. She is the chameleon whose true stripes are those of the real survivors of the system.
Maybe the fact that this was my first play in a long time or that I was really captivated by what was going on made me oblivious to problems. But I found the whole show to be free of any big issues. Sure, there were a couple of minor complaints. While I thought it was a great idea to have the singer sing live in front of the audience at the beginning and end of the show, having her on stage in between was a distraction, as good as her vocals were. In a couple of scenes the abrupt end of the scene took away some of the palpable tension that could have built into a higher crescendo. Then again, these are definitely minor quibbles in an otherwise well executed and well acted show.
So, should you see it?
Absolutely. This is my first time at a full length play (clocking at about 100 minutes) in the Bay Area. And if this is the kind of quality and acting I can expect, I am so going to so many more, not in the least the ones from BAD Company. Bhopal is a story that has found its voice. And what a tour de force it is. There are still some tickets left for the shows on the 13th and 14th. Don’t wait, rush to the website and get it while it lasts. That it one decision you will not regret.
Beyond anything else, this play “Bhopal” reminds you in the starkest way possible, the horror and tragedy of Bhopal, thirty years ago. One that still has unanswered questions and two generations of affected families. This play puts you in Bhopal on that cyanide filled night. It also gives you a ring side view of how bad things can get at this scale when left unchecked and unmonitored.
I was invited to attend the opening night by a friend and if interested, write an unbiased review of the play. I was not paid to write this in cash or kind. I wrote this because I felt like the play deserved all my words and more.