Point of View - A review of A Personal War.

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The three days of November 26, 2008 are etched deeply in the mind and heart of every citizen of Mumbai. There is no way anyone can remain untouched and unmoved by the very mention of 26/11. But one person poured her anguish on to paper, and very hurriedly got mostly family members to support her to express her personal outrage on stage.

Divya Palat’s persistent smses and phone calls inviting me to A PERSONAL WAR – STORIES OF THE MUMBAI TERROR ATTACKS, triumphed in spite of my initial reluctance. And her original play being invited to open the Edinburgh Fringe Festival intrigued me.
There were some twenty five brief monologues very sincerely and very simply written & directed by Divya Palat, capturing the pain, torment, violence, horror, humour, shame, resilience, disbelief of what happened at the Taj Palace Hotel near the Gateway of India, the Trident Oberoi Hotel at Nariman Point, the VT station, the Leopold Café in Colaba Causeway.
Divya collected all that one had heard and read in the TV, Press reports, and Editorials, and personal stories shared in drawing rooms of many that one lost in that bloody, unexpected, diabolic mayhem, and wove them into monologues spoken by actors who became witnesses to the gory bloodshed of that day.

The Experimental Theatre of the National Centre For the Performing Arts was beautifully draped in white, blue and violet orchids, decorating the entrance and the foyer, welcoming the special invitees of the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Commissioner of Police Mr. S
hivanandan with a myriad of juices. It belied the impact of what was in store for the audience within the auditorium. Many had visited the NCPA for the first time in their lives.

The stage was set with one large and four television screens projecting EDINBURGH FRINGE DIARY and one upturned bar stool that was intermittently straightened or laid down as the monologues demanded.
It all began self indulgently with a hand-held home video projecting the excitement and enthusiasm of the cast arriving in Edinburgh.

This was followed by another video of very positive, encouraging, moving responses from various members of the audience – young, old, professionals, journalists, perhaps survivors/victims/witnesses of terrorist attacks in their own part of the world --who had attended one the 17 shows at the Fringe. Many were unable to hold back their tears and spoke in choked voices and emotion.

Then, amidst actual footage projected on large screens as backdrop, the horror of those three days began to unfold on stage as a team of seven actors made their entrances and exits taking the events forward.

The familiar footage of the Taj, its burning dome, gun-toting terrorists wandering through its corridors, their conversations, commands, and instructions from their mentors, the captured terrorist Ajmal Kasab being interrogated in hospital, scenes from VT station, Chowpatty, Leopold Café brought alive the reality and enormity of 26/11 all over again.

Anu Menon played the invasive TV journalist Smita Prasad communicating the over enthusiasm of the TV reporters vying with competitive channels to grab the largest number of eyeballs, that received such flack from the public, and their personal dilemma in the modus operandi dictated by their bosses. Vivan Bathena was the hospitality-trainee Shahrukh Khan epitomising the service-before-self sacrifi
ces of the hotel staff who is finally gunned-down by the terrorists protecting his clients. Khushboo Hitkari was the empty-headed celebrity Saloni preening before the cameras making vacuous statements. Aditya Hitkari played the lawyer Harshad Mehta who accompanies his businessman father to the Oberoi for dinner, survives because he is buried under a heap of bodies that fall over him during the shoot-out. Sanket Mhatre was the shy college student Vicky who reluctantly accompanies some friends to the Leopold Café because a girl he has a crush on is also going along. But she is killed before he can confess his love for her. Vatsala Kothari as the Gujarati Meeta Patel from Vapi was the VT shootout survivor who arrived at VT to fulfill a long cherished dream to visit Mumbai and Bollywood, mistakes the shootings for a Hindi film unit, and loses her husband and her 4-year-old son in the attack. Divya Palat was the devastated young woman from Pune who describes the horrific events through a flood of tears while talking to her mother on the phone.

A PERSONAL WAR is certainly a triumph for Divya Palat. The heart wrenching truth and tragedy is interspersed with humour -- but the graveness and seriousness leaves no one untouched.

The Jana Gana Mana Curtain call was a fitting tribute at the end . And one could hear the choked sobs and tears through the singing of the National Anthem as many in the audience relived those darkest hours.

The proceeds of THE PERSONAL WAR were donated to the Police Commissioner as a humble contribution towards better equipping our Police Force with bullet-proof life jackets, better weapons, et al. This is one example of how theatre can motivate and communicate effectively.

- Dolly Thakore
Veteran theatre actress and critic.