Survival of the toughest: A play on how three Indian soldiers stayed sane at the face of death

Aditya Rawal’s play, Siachen, attempts to understand why India and Pakistan continue to send their soldiers to the world’s coldest battlefield
A still from Siachen
A still from Siachen

There is a certain irony in being in the cosy confines of Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre and watching a play set in the highest battlefield in the world. Even as the audience sits snugly in the sold-out show, they feel transported to the cold climes of Siachen, the sub-zero location in the Karakoram Range of the Himalayas.  

Written by Aditya Rawal and directed by veteran theatre practitioner and actor Makrand Deshpande, the play, Siachen, premiered on June 15. It is a fictional survival drama about three Indian soldiers stuck on a glacier after a catastrophic blizzard. As days turn into weeks with no news from the base, it is up to them to stay sane and alive in the extreme conditions.

For 29-year-old Aditya, writing the play meant exploring the question: What compels India and Pakistan to spend so much money and send soldiers to a place where not a single bullet has been fired in the last 20 years? “While trust brings us together, mistrust is what protects us. The latter is the cause of fear, motivating us to maintain our presence in these uninhabitable places,” he says, adding, “But what do you do about it? The play wrestles with this dilemma.”

<em><strong>Makrand Deshpande with Aditya (r) & Zahan Kapoor (c) </strong></em>
Makrand Deshpande with Aditya (r) & Zahan Kapoor (c) 

Actor-screenwriter Aditya, the son of actors Paresh Rawal and Swaroop Sampat, penned the play 
a few years ago. During the lockdown, when he and his Faraaz co-star Zahan Kapoor––Shashi Kapoor’s grandson––were reading different plays to stage one, they realised they had a ready work in Siachen. The script, originally written in English, was translated into Hindi by writer Raghav Dutt with inputs from both Zahan and Aditya, who have co-produced it under the latter’s 72°East Production.

On stage, three soldiers Zahan, Chitransh and Niketan Sharma––fight to survive the unbearable cold, often uttering biting dialogues that reveal underlying tensions. Past and present collide as their imaginations run havoc, often to the point of hallucinating things or people who may not be present. There is a lot of banter as well, at times playful and at other times threatening, to spill long-buried secrets. Aditya admits tending to gravitate towards dark humour. 

“I think it (humour) is incredibly important in a story like this. If the audience laughs with the characters, it is more likely to cry for them too. If there is hope, then despair hits hard and vice versa. There has to be a balance of both,” he says. But recreating a world known to few, with as much authenticity as possible, wasn’t easy. The limited runtime of an hour and 20 minutes only made the task harder. “We wanted Siachen to be shown accurately to communicate the enormity of the challenges these soldiers face. I didn’t want to be an expositor, but do things in a dramatic and engaging way,” says the writer.

Created by Shaira Kapoor, the set comprised a tiny clinic, a kitchenette, a small office and radio station, with the mountains in the backdrop. It was brought to life with the thunder and lightning sounds by Vaibhav Jadhav, and the rousing music by Ajay Jayanthi, transporting the viewers to the uninhabitable place called Siachen. 

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