When poisonous gas escaped into the air from Union Carbide’s factory in Bhopal on December 3 1984, I was all set to travel by train from Chennai to New Delhi. In fact, a day later on a journey that would take me via Bhopal. But since those were not days of multiple television channels and internet, the severity of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters was not apparent. I made the trip all right, and my train chugged through Bhopal. And I went on unscathed.
But thousands died that day, thousands died in the subsequent years – much like during the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thousands are still suffering from the effects of the poison. The relatives of the dead and those maimed are still waiting for justice.
Ravi Kumar’s film on the tragedy, Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, will hit screens this Friday, and one of the most significant aspects about this work will be that it is the first ever on the subject. And the movie comes 30 years and two days after Bhopal recoiled in terror – not having the vaguest clue as to what could have hit the sleeping city so hard.
Kumar’s creation had been in the cans since 2010. There were no distributors for it. Perhaps, the theme might have offended the Government in power till recently. Martin Sheen, the American actor in Kumar’s work, had predicted some time ago that it would be difficult to find a theatrical release. During an interview with me in Dubai last year, he was candid to the core. "You know, I play Warren Anderson, who headed the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal during the catastrophe. The movie was shot in Hyderabad. But you know, it is not just a film, it is an indictment. It is about the slaughter of thousands of people in a couple of hours, and many more thousands since then. It is a very hard movie to watch. It is not easy to get a release for it," Sheen said and he was bang on.
But film or no film, the people of Bhopal never forgot the death and suffering they had to face. Recently, the city celebrated Anderson's death. He was 96 years old when he passed away on September 29 -- the man who for long lived like a recluse, the man who escaped from India (with some important powers in the Government reportedly helping him to fly out) and was never convicted. Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action told the media, "Hopefully, his life in hiding and ignominious death will be a lesson for all corporate criminals."
But Kumar is not jumping in joy, at least not yet. He said in a recent interview that "Anderson’s death does not signify closure. His death makes it more imperative that Dow Jones [which later bought Union Carbide] do the right thing and apologise to the people of Bhopal and clean up the plant."
Although Kumar’s work comes after a yawning gap of 30 years – that allowed him to have a certain emotional distance from the disaster and perhaps be more objective – the sheer magnitude of the incident still shocks him. Bhopal ran out of coffins, and all the horses, each one of them, were killed.
Despite this passing of time, Kumar and Sheen had to have many discussions about how they ought to portray Anderson. Must he be shown as a villain? Or, one who was caught up in a web of events over which he had little control?
Kumar, who is a medical doctor by profession and filmmaker by choice, believed that Anderson failed to take responsibility for the disaster. He was certainly guilty of this. He did not even offer an apology!
Probably, Sheen -- agreeing with this point of view -- felt that by essaying Anderson, he was doing some kind of prayashchit. He said, "It is time we stepped in by accepting our responsibility and owning up. It is time we accepted that we failed to do what we should have done for the people of Bhopal." Sheen’s honesty is disarming. His ruthlessness is remarkable.
And this is not the first time that Sheen is seen in such a bold movie. In 1979, he acted in Apocalypse Now, a work that panned America’s designs in Vietnam. This film and Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain conveyed "America’s cultural arrogance". Which extended now to "establishing democracy in different parts of the world when we have had enough problems with our own democracy".
This is the kind of message that Sheen likes to push. He throws his weight behind those men he considers lacking in courage. Anderson is the latest he has portrayed.
Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain will undoubtedly be a bold expose that men like Sheen have helped realise. The movie with a great soundtrack by the Emmy-nominated composer Benjamin Wallfisch will have on its cast Bollywood actor Rajpal Yadav, playing a worker caught in the horrific events, and Mischa Barton as a foreign news reporter.
The film, that talks about the event leading up to the fateful night in Bhopal, is slated to hit theatres on December 5.