Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain (U) 102 min
Cast: Martin Sheen, Rajpal Yadav, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Kal Penn, Mischa Barton, Fagun Thakrar, Joy Sengupta
Director: Ravi Kumar
Rating: 3 star
Most Indians, brought up on a diet of stories about action-reaction, karma-dharma, are cagey about pinning blame, according accountability. There’s always the score of the victim’s sins in past life to be settled in this life thus the accident, suffering, tragedy, death. And there’s always the perpetrator’s next life to settle the score of crimes committed in this life.
The circle of seven rebirths is God’s own Supreme Court. In the course of seven lives, the guilty will be punished, and the sufferer will be rewarded. Jaisi karni, vaisi bharni. The bigger the tragedy, the greater our reliance on metaphysics. Uparwala is watching; uparwala will take care. And in any case, nothing good can come of joining forces against the big and mighty. There are always favours to be curried.
That’s why we leave tragedies be. We don’t revisit them. We don’t like watching them, talking about them, because mostly we haven’t acted, and the cathartic climax hasn’t taken place. It’s all very anti-climatic. So we stick to fiction. Fictional heroes, fictional victories. We love them. They keep our delusion of grandeur alive and singing. It’s in this setting that director Ravi Kumar’s Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain arrives, ruffling feathers, pinning blame, spotlighting the criminal negligence and apathy of big corporates, culpability of the Indian government, and our own very desi, very Hindu detached coldness.
Writers Ravi Kumar and David Brooks’ Bhopal is a well-researched documentation of what led to “the world’s worst ever chemical disaster”. It carefully, meticulously, chronologically tells the story of why and how, at around 12.30 am on December 3, 1984, water entered Tank E610 containing 42 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) at the Union Carbide India Limited’s (UCIL) plant in Bhopal. It shows how Union Carbide Corporation’s CEO, Warren Anderson (Martin Sheen), reacted when, in 45 to 60 minutes, about 30 metric tons of MIC vapours leaked silently into the atmosphere the plant’s warning siren was kept switched off, deliberately. It makes us watch what happened as clouds of toxic gases drifted through residential areas surrounding the plant, how the local hospital tried to cope with hordes of patients coughing, choking, their stinging eyes bleeding.
The UCC, especially Anderson, maintained throughout that MIC was “not poisonous”, that it was like teargas. But the cherry red blood the doctors in Bhopal were drawing from hapless victims was similar to that of cyanide poisoning. (Blood turns cherry red when poison blocks the absorption of oxygen.) Officially, the immediate death toll was 2,259, and eventually about 16,000. This tragedy comes to us through the film’s emotional anchor Dilip (Rajpal Yadav), a rickshawpuller. We are plonked in his house, with his wife Leela (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a young sister and a son, as spectators. He joins Union Carbide and thus begins our inquiry into the tragic events.
The story unfolds through an elaborate cast of characters. There’s the UCC headquarters in America, with Anderson at the helm, concerned mainly with improving the bottomline of the Bhopal plant, of selling cartons of pesticide Carbaryl, also known as Sevin fast. But drought has affected the crop cycle, and Indian farmers are not buying pesticide. Yet, production must be kept up if the plant is to remain functional. Anderson visits Bhopal, tells workers to “pray for rain”. (That’s the reference to the film’s subtitle. There’s also the allusion to a theory that had it rained on the night of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the fatalities would have been much less. This remains unproven, hence the film’s title alludes to it, but the film doesn’t state it.)
Then there are factory officials, often deliberately negligent. They keep cutting corners despite the pleas of the plant’s lone safety officer. And working with and monitoring the chemicals are the plant’s workers poor, illiterate and desperate to retain their jobs, they follow instructions unquestioningly. Bit by bit we see how the plant is creeping towards a disaster when water gets mixed with MIC, when the cooling AC plant is shut down, when protective gear is not provided despite pipes that are corroding, leaking. Even the death of a worker with just a few drops of MIC, and the haunting image of his widow bring about no change. (MIC is very toxic it can be absorbed not just by inhalation, but also through the skin.)
Hovering and sniffing around the plant is journalist Motwani (Kal Penn) who runs a local tabloid that often warns of the impending tragedy. Kal is actually Rajkumar Keswani, now a veteran journalist, who, two years before the gas tragedy, wrote a story in a weekly magazine, Rapat, titled “Bhopal jwalamukhi ki kagaar par (Bhopal sits on a volcano)”.
And, finally, there are Indian ministers, concerned with the elections, votes, and kept away from the plant by thick packets of money.
Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain is not the first film on the Bhopal gas tragedy. There was Van Maximilian Carlson’s 2011 documentary Bhopali, BBC’s One Night in Bhopal, and the 1999 feature, Bhopal Express, directed by Mahesh Mathai. Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, like the documentaries, tells the story as is. For the main, it pits Goliath against David, and lets us watch as one Goliath slays thousands of Davids. It is also rooted in reality. It shows that culturally, traditionally, Indians are not very safety conscious. That hygiene is not just a victim of poverty, but also a casualty of a general chalta-hai attitude.
The film doesn’t obfuscate the truth, just embellishes it a bit. Despite the silly diversion of a female French journalist (played by Mischa Barton), and despite Penn’s American-accented Hindi, his character is important as it lends credibility to the charges and claims of the victims. Martin Sheen has always been an efficient but an extremely limited actor. He doesn’t inhabit Warren Anderson. He just plays the part. As it has been written, and played, his Anderson is seemingly benign. He talks enthusiastically about being a “Carbider” to Indian staff who don’t follow English, and in private jokes about his company that contributed to the creation of the first atomic bomb, about a starving India signing PL 480, launching the Green Revolution and, thus, facilitating Union Carbide’s entry into India. Like MIC, he reeks of feudal benevolence and corrosive capitalism. He is politely, gently evil.
Rajpal Yadav is as predictable and limited as Sheen. He delivers the goods, but not in very good condition.
Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain tells the story of the worst of times with some needless “cinematic liberties” that make it a lesser movie, but, perhaps, a more palatable one. It begs a sequel a film about how our legal luminaries, led by Fali S. Nariman and Nani Palkiwala, argued in courts for several billable hours paid for by the Union Carbide Corporation, and ensured that Union Carbide had to cough up just $1,000 for every death it caused. It could be titled, Bhopal: A Courtroom Tragedy....