An Indian salute to the Bush-Zaidi saga


Arvind Gaur has a mass following is obvious from the crowd that gathered to see his latest play The Last Salute at the Shri Ram Centre.

The hall was overcrowded with people sitting and standing in the aisles. Apparently, and unfortunately, some 50 people had o be turned away.
Written by Rajesh Kumar, the play is produced by the filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt who read out a letter to his American friend Charles as a prologue to the play. In his letter, Bhatt pours out his vitriolic hate for the American establishment pointing out their double-standards vis-à-vis democracy. The United States of America speaks with a forked tongue when it talks of terrorism by the Islamic states while it is doing the same thing in Iraq where in the name of democracy it has crushed the people through a devastating war. The letter with its strong anti-American stand sets the tone for the subsequent play.
The play deals with the incident when an agitated journalist threw his shoes at President George W. Bush during his farewell conference in Baghdad on December 14, 2008. The shoe-thrower was Muntadhar al-Zaidi, an Iraqi broadcast journalist who was a correspondent for the Iraqi-owned Egypt based Al Bagh. The play proceeds in vignettes interspersed by a chorus and the narrators. Al-Zaidi was brought up in a simple middle-class home. His father lost his eyesight when al-Zaidi was a small boy. He grew up on his own resources and was a self-made man. During his adolescent years, he falls in love with a girl who refuses his proposal.
Why did he throw a harmless shoe at Mr Bush? Apparently he wanted his name to hit the spotlight!
He also carried the burden of hate against the American system and Mr Bush, who represented the powerful democracy. Mr Bush was the obvious choice. In the shoe-throwing scene we see the strict checking of the Iraqi journalists, al-Zaidi sits with his shoes off as the Iraqi Prime Minister enters with the US President. Soon after Mr Bush starts speaking he hurls one shoe and then the other; all hell breaks loose on him as he is overpowered and taken away. The Iraqi soldiers and the secret police beats him up as he continues to shout anti-American slogans. In the background there is a video recording of the actual event.
The work relies on video recording for authenticity and may be effect, or both. It begins with a clip from the CNN network where the news is about the presidential announcement of the presence of biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s arsenal in Iraq and how they were a threat to mankind and must be found and destroyed. While Mr Bush, who is brilliantly satirised, a role enacted by Ishwak Singh, is speaking of the WMD, the Baghdadis gathered at corner shops are thinking of the war. However, the sudden attack is not expected. There is extensive video show of bombing and starving. The entire stage is ablaze.
The play follows an almost unendurable litany of descriptions of the outcome of war in human terms. We hear gory descriptions of death and destruction, of the tragic condition of the women and children maimed or traumatised in the war. The chorus takes over whenever there is the need to underline or emphasise anything for the audience in this docu-drama. In the beginning, they sing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s famous nazm Ham Dekhenge (We Shall See) and in the end their song is Yeh Kiska Khoon Hai Aur Kaun Mara (Whose Blood is this and Who Died,). These two songs composed by Dr Sangeeta Gaur in her own inimitable style, form the leitmotif of this docu-drama.
This work by Asmita follows the tradition of agit-prop theatre, where the purpose is to carry the message to the audience, nevermind the manner in which it takes place. So we have a large chorus fervently belting out songs regardless of harmony, a narrator who is strident in speech and actors with loud gestures with shouting at the top of their voices.
Imran Zahid plays Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the hero of The Last Salute, is seemingly new to Asmita. He plays normally and then suddenly as if remembering some instruction he booms out the rest of the lines of dialogue. Perhaps Imran Zahid is caught on the horns of a dilemma; to play the role as required by theatre or concentrate on the film to be made by Mahesh Bhatt on this theme with him as the hero.

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