Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain
Director: Ravi Kumar
Cast: Mischa Barton, Martin Sheen, Kal Penn, Rajpal Yadav, Tannishtha Chatterjee
In December 1984, Bhopal suffered one of the most tragic accidents in world history where thousands of people lost their lives. Three decades later, the victims and survivors of the accident continue to wait for justice. Ravi Kumar's docu-drama Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain traces the build-up to the tragedy that still haunts India.
The film, co-written by Ravi Kumar and David Brooks, begins with the disclaimer “Based on true events but certain cinematic liberties have been taken for dramatic effect.”
Dilip (Rajpal Yadav) plays a rickshaw puller in Bhopal and lives in abject poverty, struggling to make a living for his wife Leela (Tannishtha Chatterjee), one child and a sister. Life takes a turn for the better, or so it seems to the family, when Dilip is asked to replace a worker who died in an accident inside the Union Carbide factory. His only qualification? He could pick up a sack!
The death, on the other hand, instigates a local journalist Motwani (Kal Penn) to investigate the safety precautions followed by company. He tries to reach everyone from the local doctor (Manoj Joshi) to persuading a visiting American journalist (Mischa Barton) to interview the Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson (Martin Sheen). However, by the time he finally gets to know the truth, it is too late. He discovers the poisonous nature of chemicals over-stocked in the area only on the night of the tragic mishap.
On a parallel plane, the film also tries to document the challenges facing the US-based company, its struggles to meet sales targets and its failure to meet safety standards, among others. The top officials of Union Carbide sadly feel they are carrying their share of social responsibility by providing jobs to the local people and choose to ignore the safety norms. When told that there are certain safety issues that need to be addressed as soon as possible, a visiting top officer says, “Safety is a local issue, give me sales figures.” They are even seen telling a worker, who complains of sickness and asks if it has anything to do with the chemicals, that “all chemicals used to are harmless to the human body”.
Director Ravi Kumar, who won the Bermuda Shorts Award in 2002 for his short film My Other Wheelchair Is a Porsche, should be congratulated for picking a rather grave subject for his latest film. Though the enormity of the accident is never lost in the film, one wished it was more intense. It is only towards the end that Bhopal A Prayer... lives up to the gravity of the issue with heart-wrenching scenes of the accident and deaths all around.
Also, Kumar delves a little too much into the life and struggles of Dilip, perhaps for a personal touch to the story. But that is what takes away from the severity of the issue at hand. The audience is certainly aware of the worst chemical accident in world’s history and hence all the poverty and misery does build up the eventual helplessness of the victims. What is missing is that Kumar stops short of putting the blame on anyone. Warren is depicted as a rather humanist, someone who was kept in ignorance of the defaulting safety norms. Victims of the gas tragedy, who watched the film, claim that Warren’s interaction with the factory workers shown in this film was not close to what happened actually. He, however, hints that a few locals working with the factory could be blamed for the tragedy.
The accident happened three decades ago, but the cautionary tale that Bhopal is, could not be more relevant. Bhopal A Prayer For Rain highlights the tragic reality that the promise of jobs and prosperity often trumps environmental and safety concerns and our governments tend to ignore corporate irresponsibility in return for votes and bribes.
All the actors do justice to characters they play. Rajpal Yadav, for instance, looks convincing playing a poor man struggling with the dowry-demands for his sister. The pain on his face when he confronts the widow of the man he is asked to replace in the factory looks real. Martin Sheen and Kal Penn are smooth with their performances and add a depth to the movie. The carelessness with which Sheen says, “It is a third world country, always messy,” is very haunting. Or the way he ignores a serious debate on whether the company should compensate a worker’s death saying, “The question is gentlemen, White or red? (referring to the wines on offer by the butler)” is devastating to say the least. Penn essays the role of a journalist hell-bent on exposing the company’s threat to the lives of the locals in Bhopal and he does it wonderfully. Mischa’s cameo seems unnecessary as she has little to do in the movie.
Ravi Kumar is not scared of showing India's underbelly while pointing a finger at American arrogance in dealing with this shameful incident. The screenplay is where the movie fails. It could have been a more involving story.
Bhopal A Prayer For Rain is a must-watch, for the sheer gravity of the criminal incident that remains unresolved three decades after it occurred. Also, it blames both the American and Indian sides.
Sadly, this film does not offer any new insights into the tragedy. It could have been far more touching with a better research. Nonetheless, the performances and a decent screenplay make it worth a watch.