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‘I’ve never been so scared’

Actress Swastika Mukherjee was in the front row at Academy of Fine Arts on Thursday evening when a fire erupted onstage. She recounted the horror to Metro the day after.

I had gone to watch (Suman Mukhopadhyay’s) Shunyo Shudhu Shunyo Noy with my friend Mainak (Bhaumik, filmmaker). We were seated in the extreme right-hand corner. Suddenly, we saw smoke around us and there were murmurs that since the play was a ghost story, it must be a part of the special effects. I told Mainak that I had seen the play before and never seen something like this. The murmurs grew louder and, in just a few seconds, from the corner I was sitting in I saw the first sparks in the curtains.

Within a few seconds it became terrible. People were jumping over their chairs and trying to get out. There was panic, shouting, screaming. The fire started to spread in leaps and bounds and the crowd went berserk. It was a houseful show. Mainak asked me to step aside and not try and leave right then, fearing a stampede.

Koushikda’s (Sen) mother Chitra Sen was inside. We took her to the side and helped her out. As we stood there, we watched the curtains burn and smoke fill the place.

Suddenly, a big ball of fire leapt out at us. Mainak, who happened to spot it, pushed me aside and it missed us by a couple of centimetres. I screamed out loud.

I’ve never been so scared in my life. Within seconds there were sparks and splinters flying out from the stage area towards the audience.

In all that chaos, Mainak and I finally managed to get out of there. As I stood outside I was in shock. It took time to register… what had just happened and what we had been through. It was gradually that I returned to my senses and realised how choked and parched my throat was from the smoke and ash.

It was tremendously scary when you think of how the fire was growing and spreading. And just like we see in the movies, where all the help and police arrive after everything is over, that is what we witnessed in reality today. It was the boys and girls from the two theatre groups — Tritiya Sutra (Suman’s) and Swapnasandhani (Koushik’s) — who ran around trying to control the fire and the crowds.

Star theatre, when it was razed in a fire, my father (actor Santu Mukherjee) was inside rehearsing for a play with no clue that a fire had started. I’ve heard him narrate the story. Never had I imagined this could happen to Academy, that too in front of my eyes. I’ve visited the Academy a hundred times to watch plays. When you’re walking into a cinema hall or theatre, security and exit gates are not the things on your mind. No discussion or debate happens until a terrible tragedy strikes.

And there I was just standing there and watching a disaster unfold. Deplorable maintenance of such an age-old institution and no one really cares. Lives seem to matter the least.

It was probably an accident but an unbelievable coincidence that it happened on a day when both Suman and Koushik were showcasing their plays.