Disaster theatre



There is something obscenely theatrical about the Bhopal disaster. On the night of December 2nd 1984, a leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant caused a 27-ton cloud of methyl isocyanate to drift across the Indian metropolis of Bhopal, a city of a million people, killing thousands of its residents in their sleep and poisoning hundreds of thousands more. The effects are still being felt since Union Carbide never finished decontaminating the site. When the plant was sold off, its new owners, Dow Chemical—themselves no strangers to the fatal potential of chemicals (http://www.dow.com/sustainability/debates/agentorange/) — denied any responsibility for actions that had preceded their tenure.


Eclipsed as the world’s largest industrial accident only by the slow accumulation of cancer-related deaths that followed the Chernobyl disaster, the Bhopal disaster was a product of corporate hubris of Titanic proportions. Just as the great ship lacked lifeboats, Union Carbide had downgraded and neglected to maintain six levels of safety systems that could have contained the leak. What the Titanic symbolized for progress, Bhopal might symbolize for India’s experience of globalization. While Union Carbide had come with promises of capital and jobs to jump-start the economy, the price of corporate cost-saving and local corruption would be paid for on the bodies of Indians. Even in the lawsuits that followed the accident, it was eight Indian employees who would be convicted of causing death by negligence while American CEO Warren Anderson, the arch-villain of the story if there ever was one, went into hiding after the Indian government tried to extradite him and remains a free man in the US.


The disaster is so theatrical that it threatens to elude theatrical representation: how can a meagre stage and a troupe of actors give a sense of the enormous industrial infrastructure, the international transactions that led to the disaster, and the mass death, the slow death by disease, that continued over generations. It’s no simple task, but it’s one that has haunted playwright Rahul Varma, whose Bhopal is in revival at the Segal Centre this month, since he first heard reports of the accident on TV as it was happening.


“I was watching it on the TV in Montreal,” says Varma. “It was extremely disturbing but the very next day the news began to come in print media and everything you saw was more horrible than the last thing. So I made the decision I would write a play about Bhopal so I can just talk more about it.”


Bhopal first opened in Montreal in 2001 and quickly became the most successful play by Varma’s company Teesri Duniya . It has been translated into French, Hindi and Punjabi and is performed frequently around the world.


The shock of the event was one thing but finding the form the play would take turned out to be more complicated. “When I started writing Bhopal, I could not complete the script because of the enormity of the task and the complexity of the issue,” says Varma.  “I ended up writing another play (Land Where the Trees Talk), which was about the First Nations land rights. The similarity between the two issues was the denial of social justice.”


Varma put the script aside for several years, during which time he researched the issue and travelled to Bhopal to meet with survivors, victims’ families, and activists campaigning for justice. But the play really began to take form when he saw a documentary by Tapan Bose and Suhasini Malay called Bhopal: Beyond Genocide that brought him face to face with some of the most horrific images of the disaster.


Bose and Malay’s film follows the first 18 days in the life of a child, Zarina, born after the explosion. Varma would use baby Zarina as a character in his play. “What I write about Zarina is exactly what I saw. I have to admit that I could not fully describe the horror and the pain that I saw on her body. I could actually see her organs through her skin,” he recalls.


Varma began to imagine what an 18-day-old child that has only ever experienced pain would say if she could speak. “What is the nature of the pain she is suffering, what would she tell me? She cannot speak. So her silence was doing all the talking. I realized that it’s the silence of the children, it’s the silence of the people who were unable to speak for political reasons, because of state suppression, because of manipulation by the industry, this is what I need to highlight in the play. So the quest became to bring out the truth that has not been talked about. The articulation of Zarina’s silence was the major motivation of the play and it ended up revealing the silence of other people who were either not telling the truth or were not being able to speak. We had to give voice to those people.”


The play sets up a complex ecosystem populated by opportunistic government officials, desperate locals, conniving businessmen, idealistic foreign humanitarians and compromising western bureaucrats. Dr. Sonya Labonté is a Bethune-esque Canadian doctor, determined to discover the source of birth defects that are plaguing the town, but her work is being undermined by figures from the company and the government who try to discredit her findings and prevent her from finishing her work. The Canadian government turns out to be a weak defender of her rights, preferring to compromise with local authorities. The inclusion of Canadian and American characters, some of whom are concerned, others of whom are complicit, but all of whom are highly privileged, helps to situate the disaster as a product of globalization.


“I wanted to write a play where the audience, when it sees the stage, also sees a global makeup of who we are. That’s why you have Dr. Labonté, you have Mr. Anderson, you have Jaganlal [the Minister of State], you have Madiha [an employee at Carbide] but you also have Izzat, who is from the economic underclass. We are so fixated on writing the plays from the perspective of the middle class or the upper class that we forget the people who represent the working class and the poor,” says Varma.


Desperate and unemployed, Izzat is Zarina’s mother. She accepts handouts from the company and the government that she doesn’t recognize as attempts to buy her off. Like Brecht’s Mother Courage, she profits, however meagerly, from the same company that ends up killing her child.


In addition to its cross-cultural cast of characters, the play has a hybrid style, combining individual characters with a large and flexible chorus. While North American productions have had small choruses, often depending on the cast to double up roles, the Hindi production had more twenty extra bodies on the stage. “The chorus is a characterin itself,” says Varma. “It’s not a backdrop; it’s telling its own story. It is providing imagery and clarifying the story. It is beautifying the story.”


The flow of the naturalistic plot is interrupted with songs in Hindi written by Varma’s mentor, the legendary Indian playwright Habib Tanvir . “The songs add an Indian aesthetic to the play and gives it a certain degree of authenticity because the metaphors in Panvir’s songs are very closely related to the culture of the place where the incident occurred.”


“A poison wind began to blow from a place unseen,” sings the chorus, “Filled with helpless wailing, louder than silenced screams.”


For the last twelve years, Varma’s play has helped to give a voice to some of those silenced screams. As long as justice remains to be done for the residents of Bhopal, it continues to be a powerful contribution to their struggle.



Bhopal by Rahul Varma, directed by Liz Valdez, runs January 15 to February 2 at the Segal Centre (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine). Tickets are

available at the Segal Centre  or by calling 514-739-7944