Free Press Journal

Play Review David Coleman Headley: Inside the mind of a terrorist


Anupama Chandra shares her experience of a performance that left her disturbed.  

I remember the night of 26/11 clearly, heck, the whole day too. You would too if you had lived in Mumbai or had a dear ones trapped in the city that night, with no idea of their whereabouts for most part. People at CSMT and many other parts of the city died and were strewn like litter, a cultural and hospitality edifice burned, and police officers were felled and all was not well in our world. And for most parts, it was the work of one David Coleman Headley.

Goes without saying, I was not too sure about attending the play, but every reviewer has in her an innate masochistic streak that propels you on in the face of uncertainty and mine is pretty strong and convinced me to watch the performance.

A heavy task

Jeff Goldberg, of the eponymous studio, has carried out research, and then written and directed himself in this onerous task of a play at staging the life story of a reprehensible character such as Headley. I hold one-person plays as one particular kind of ultimate litmus test for an actor and the subject, as it is easy for it to go either way – brilliant or disastrous.

A small, raised and empty stage deprived of props, unless you count a plastic chair, and an elongated wait for the play to begin and I feel as if it is I, not Headley, who is in prison. In the dark, Headley creeps up on the stage in his orange Federal Prison jumpsuit and announces his arrival with a bang of the chair.

And thus, begins the one and a half hour long sociopathic verbal barrage of a boy born to severely incompatible parents who proceed to tear him inconsiderately apart between two realities, one of an intense third-world Pakistan (and Muslim) existence and, the other, a first-world privileged Philadelphia (supposedly promiscuous) one. Such an upbringing could still lead to a ‘normal’ human and life, but we are not to encounter that here, are we?

From his discovery of heroin and his colourful ‘addictive personality’ that has a weakness for women and all the wrong ways of making loads of easy money, Headley plays its all out in a realistic lazy staccato manner that is peppered with sections of day-dreaminess and hauled along with his need to confess it all in the ‘Nine Truths of Life’ format. The harsh life of a gora kid in Pakistan that turns out to be a blessing in every other walk of life is abused to the hilt by Headley.

You do feel for a young boy who stares death in the face when India supposedly bombed his school and he lost two of his friends in the attack; it lays an early base for his burgeoning hatred for India. In direct relation to the Mumbai attacks, his connection to ISI, LeT, Hafeez Saeed and Sajid Mir are organically built up in the plot and explained blow-by-blow (too many blows if you ask me) as is his transition to becoming a prize double agent for US and Pakistan.

His careful surveillance of Colaba and Mumbai always sends a shiver down my spine whether I visit the spots or read the newspaper articles or the book, The mind of a terrorist, and it was the same at the performance. I would have so liked to have lashed out at him at one point in the show.

The sketch of an ignoble character

I have always been intrigued by the complex characters of Karan, Ashwathama and Ravan. On the one hand, they are veritable scholars and accomplished prodigies of their chosen fields and on the other their notoriety is as humungous in its entirety.

Yet, these people have such solid qualities of redemption that it is impossible to label them as scoundrels only; they are mighty warriors and villains. For our protagonist, I have no kind words (do any of us?) to say and a scoundrel is all he is. But one with such an instinct for survival and eye for detail becomes more dangerous, and even more severely ignoble to all around him.

Even if we concede that his emotional well-being was never a top-priority for anybody, yet it is difficult to pardon his strong survival instinct which is meant to justify lying and foisting harm on others, even his dearest ones – which is what happens at every juncture of his life.

Goldberg falls into the trap of literally thumping his chest every time Headley felt particularly pious about his religion, banging the chair to punctuate his thoughts. The actions and music does disrupt the flow at times instead of adding to it. The lights lend the required sinister character and the production is quite light for this heavy a plot.

Initially, I was sceptical about the need to make a play on Headley, but after watching it, I realise that only by diving deep into the psyches of such personalities can we better understand ourselves, the other and the gulf that hate can create between us. The play is ultimately an instrument to help us not repeat history.