Sometimes it helps to be an Indian, as I found out during a round-table interview with Hollywood actor, Martin Sheen, here last evening. We were seven or eight of us, from different countries, and I was wondering whether I would get a chance to ask him even a single question in that frightfully short time of 20 minutes. And, Sheen was known to be elaborate in his answers. After all, he is 73, and belongs to a generation that was not a slave to time, that was never in a hurry.
But to my immensely good fortune, he looked at me intently as I introduced myself (as the others at the table had done) and said, “you know I did this movie on the Bhopal gas tragedy”. Sheen – who was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the now on Dubai International Film Festival – played Warren Anderson, the chief of Union Carbide at the time of the world’s biggest industrial disaster in December 1984. Anderson escaped being charged, and he was also lucky enough to get out of India.
“The movie, A Prayer for Rain, was shot in Hyderabad”, Sheen tells me (with the others at the table ready to kill me for having hijacked their prized trophy of the day). “But you know, it is not just a film, it is an indictment. It is about the slaughter of 12,000 people in a couple of hours, and another 13,000 people since then. It is a very hard movie to watch. It is not easy to get a release for it”.
The film’s director, Ravi Kumar, said it was scheduled for a theatrical opening in 2010, then 2011, and 2012. Finally, it was screened at the Cannes market last May. Will it ever be shown in India and in cinemas?
“Not going to be easy”, Sheen avers. “It is an ongoing tragedy. The ground in Bhopal is still polluted. The people are still affected. And the director is from Bhopal. He is a medical doctor. It is a deeply personal project for him”.
Sheen says he wanted to do the movie. “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…I play the CEO, Anderson, who escaped prosecution”. Sheen is ruthlessly honest and bold.
As the interview goes along, I find that Sheen is passionate about environmental issues, and it is no wonder that he agreed to portray Anderson. Also some eight years ago, Sheen enrolled himself in an Irish university to get a degree in environmental science. But he could not complete the course. “But I am involved in various environmental causes back home and elsewhere”, he contends.
Sheen was part of a project outside Manila in a place that has the world’s largest trash heap. “We were involved in supplying water there, so that people can have a bath”, Sheen. In an upcoming film, called Trash by Stephen Daldry and scripted around the Philippines garbage dump, Sheen essays a priest. “I run a Christian mission on the trash heap, and I get to act with the boys, all played by street kids. The movie is in Portuguese and was actually shot in Brazil”.
Sheen is not into politics, “but I am into various social causes. I am activist”. He is now doing a television series on anger management with his son, Charlie. “I play his father”.
So, Sheen’s street into social good is not through political activism, but social service.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the 10th Dubai International Film Festival)