In 1984, an American-owned pesticide factory called Union Carbide, located in the city of Bhopal, India, malfunctioned and sent poisonous gas churning into the atmosphere, enveloping the city and killing thousands upon thousands of people. To this day, Union Carbide has not issued an apology, and the compensation paid out was a mere 300 dollars per death. In response, writer and director Ravi Kumar, a paediatrician in India with modest experience in filmmaking, took it upon himself to create the film BHOPAL – A PRAYER FOR RAIN which tells the story of the Bhopal victims of Union Carbide. And I’m here for the film’s world premiere at TOKYO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.
Martin Sheen portrays the abominable figure of Chairman Anderson, head of Union Carbide at that time, and although some of his dialogue is rather drawn out, he puts in a convincing performance. The weak link in the chain cast-wise is a rather mediocre performance by Mischa Barton, who fails to convince in her role of Eva Gascon the Paris Match reporter – in fact her role could have been omitted entirely and the film would not have suffered – with Kal Penn playing the perfectly fitting journalist character anyway.
The leading man is Rajpal Yadav who plays protagonist Dilip, a poor man who believes his luck has finally turned around when he gets a job at Union Carbide. His acting is brilliant, and the joy he shows when he gets a promotion at the factory is palpable and heartbreaking at the same time. Kumar establishes the setup for the film by showing the day to day life of Dilip and his family, during which you witness the beauty of India along with the struggle of the lower class and the corruption of industry. The strongest part of the film is by far the climactic disaster finale where the factory fails and the poisonous gas erupts into the city. The dichotomy of the colourful, joyous wedding of Dilip’s sister and the oncoming gas cloud along with the terror it brings is incredibly powerful, and the soundtrack adds an overwhelming sense of doom to the scene.
The film is certainly successful in its endeavours, painting a horrific and disturbing picture of an event forgotten by many, and altogether unknown by most people born after that time. Kumar’s portrayal of the events is by no means exaggerated; the director was careful to maintain credibility in order to get the message across.
A PRAYER FOR RAIN is harrowing and gut-wrenching, and Kumar makes no attempt at softening the sheer horror of what these people went through. As a result, this film serves as a powerful historical record of this terrible disaster and a reminder of what can go wrong when you combine dangerous chemicals with corporate greed, shot in such a strong and beautiful way that renders this film a must-see.
Calling the film a “labour of love,” director Ravi Kumar apologises for the absence of the actors at the TIFF Press Conference, and opens by poignantly saying: “It’s very important for us Indians that we have shared history of these chemical disasters in Japan, so it’s very important for us to be here.”
Asked about the film’s development and casting, he responds: “It all started when I read a couple of books about the Bhopal disaster, and one of the books read like a thriller. That made me think that possibly there’s a cinematic film in there for the world audience. I didn’t go to film school, I made short films over the weekends, so that’s my experience. When I wrote the first draft of the script, I wrote with the journalist as the lead character, but the story didn’t work because the journalist did not suffer, and also he couldn’t get inside the factory, so there was no emotional attachment for the audience. Then I wrote the fictional character of Dilip, it’s a part of real characters in Bhopal that I met. I created this story of Dilip who gets the job and sees the disaster with his own eyes. The emotional attachment was that Dilip dies blaming himself for the disaster, while Carbide walks away without saying sorry. I think that was a good emotional hook for me to create the screenplay.
“Finding the actors was easier because they found the script very compelling for them to come to India and shoot this film with a first-time director. We made this film for the younger audience, who were born after the ‘80s, and did not know about Bhopal or Union Carbide. We say in English that if you forget history, we are condemned to repeat it. If you see any chemical disaster or industry disaster or BP disaster or Exxon Valdez, they all have a pattern of human error, corporate governments, corporate greed, and act of god. I think Bhopal is part of that, so by watching Bhopal, I think that we can actually learn something which can actually prevent another Bhopal from happening.”
About Martin Sheen: “I think Mr. Sheen liked the script so much that he made an offer we couldn’t refuse, and because of his background of social responsibility and on the left-leaning tendencies he was very keen. He was the nucleus around which we formed the actors and talent. I think for film students, if you have a good script, a good screenplay, I think you can attract good talent, that’s the most important thing. Even for a first time director… There’s a long list of people we tried to approach, but Mr. Sheen, from the start, within 24 hours he came back. And Mr. Sheen has been guiding us, in watching the edit and the screenplay.”
About the sympathetic portrayal of Warren Anderson, then-Chairman of Union Carbide: “First, we didn’t want to make Mr. Anderson’s character out to be a James Bond villain, because that will defeat the purpose and also people will stop believing in our story, it will become a propaganda film, it will demean the value of the film. I think when we are young we are easily idealist and slightly left of the centre. We try to change the world, but we all make mistakes. As we grow older, we become more republican, we become more conservative. He made mistakes like we all do, the only difference between him and us was that he made mistakes and he did not apologise – they did not apologise, they didn’t do anything about their mistakes. That’s the difference. That’s why we made this film, because there’s no closure for the incident. There is still a carbide factory, there is no solution to their problems, there is still suffering. The film is not about blaming someone, but understanding their mistakes and learning from them.”
About the simultaneous portrayal of Dilip’s sister’s wedding and the disaster: “We chose it because it was a real incident – There was a wedding that night and a lot of people from the wedding suffered because of the disaster. There are many incidences that are not in the film, for example train stations and hospitals, which we could not use.”
About the film’s scientific accuracy: “As a doctor and a director it was my responsibility to be true to the facts, both chemical and medical. We consulted the local Bhopal doctors, who are actually portrayed in the film, so we used local people and knowledge. You can see my hands a lot of the time in the film, in the hospital, because I’m a doctor – giving injections, listening, everything.”
About his personal experience at the time of the disaster in 1984, and the death toll: “I was born 200km from Bhopal, so I was not nearby. Even a single loss of life is regrettable. I think we’re not here to compare the death toll. It depends on who you talk to, because the people living around Carbide, they were not registered, so we will never know how many people died. The death toll I would say is between 3000 and 10,000. Just putting things in perspective, the BP disaster had a loss of I think 11 human lives, which is regrettable. At Exxon Valdez, they had no human lives lost. In the BP disaster they were forced to pay 42 billion dollars for compensation and cleaning costs, for Exxon Valdez the company paid 4.2 billion dollars. For Union Carbide they paid 300 dollars per death.”
Asked how he achieved a feature film after making only short films: “The answer is you have no social life – you grow old very fast. For the last five years I’ve been doing part time local jobs, so I can afford to actually work in films, writing. But I must emphasise, I’m the director of this film, but there are really skilled and talented people, and a lot of people believed in this story with a lot of money involved, so I’m grateful to them, on their behalf. My producers are Sahara Entertainment, which is a big financial house in India. My executive producer is Mr. Steve Clark-Hall from Warner Brothers, who did Sherlock Holmes 1 and 2, my editor is very senior, sound designers are very senior people. I was just riding on their talent and their skills, and the actors. The past five years I worked part time, so I worked 42 hours rather than 60 hours.”
About the film’s future incarnation: “I won’t tell you the whole details, but Mr. Sting loved the film and he has recorded a song with Anoushka Shankar and we are very privileged to have that song, that will be in the next edit. And there are some little changes in response to the distributors.” He went on to explain that one scene was to be completely removed on the basis that it was thought to be “too dramatic and accusatory” for the Western world.
Kumar closes by giving thanks and making an appeal: “This is our first international screening, and it’s very important to us that you people like the film. Please spread the word, because it’s a difficult film to sell.”