Film | Bhopal: A Prayer for rain
Direction: Ravi Kumar
Actors: Rajpal Yadav, Martin Sheen, Kal Penn, Mischa Barton
It’s 30 years since that disastrous night of December 3, 1984, that doomed Bhopal. Thousands died due to the MIC (methyl isocyanate) leak in one of the worst industrial disasters of all time. Bhopal still suffers, as children continue to be born with abnormalities. Ravi Kumar’s film, though nearly five years in the making, comes at a poignant time.
Subjects like these come with responsibility – mainly, maintaining veracity, and ensuring that a grave human tragedy isn’t trivialised or commodified in the name of cinema. The director (who’s mostly worked with short films prior to this) shows a lot of maturity here. He cuts from cold boardrooms and calculative CEOs to ground zero – where alien-looking chimneys sit squat in the middle of a filthy slum, where an ominous siren blares, as if warning of imminent disaster. The slum exists because the factory does. It creates jobs, sans discrimination of caste or class. In that, it is a leveller – a fact that’s easy to overlook in the larger scheme of the tragedy. Kumar does well not to.
His protagonist is Dilip (Rajpal Yadav) – forced due to a broken rickshaw, poverty and the pressure of arranging for his young sister’s wedding to take up work at Union Carbide, after his neighbour dies in an accident. He is one of several untrained hands, one of several stop-gap measures implemented in the name of profit, and which eventually backfire.
Yet, the film focuses on story-telling at the expense of fleshing out characters. In that lies its weakness. A fine bunch of actors – perhaps too many of them – are all cast as flat characters. Motwani (Kal Penn), the local journalist out to slam Union Carbide, is just the doomsayer in flamboyant shirts; American journalist Eva Gascon (Mischa Barton) is almost tangential to the plot. Others – a couple of politicians, a safety officer who rages and rants and does little else, a doctor at the local hospital – are brought in, presumably in an effort to show all sides of the story, but are more like characters in a poorly cast play, with more entrances and exits than actual time on stage.
There seems to be a half-hearted attempt to show a hard-working, humane side to Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson (Martin Sheen), but he too gets little screen time. The most convincing performance comes from Yadav – impressive as the poor man only partially aware of what’s going on around him. Penn – his efforted Hindi accent notwithstanding – too brings a rare bit of lightness to an otherwise grim subject.
All the build-up – the slow segments of political hand-greasing and expository dialogue – eventually leads to that fateful night. And here, again, Kumar’s mature handling of disaster is evident. He doesn’t sensationalise. Then again, he doesn’t need to. He’s transforming to film the horror that really took place – of which we only remember stories and horrific photographs. He also walks the fine line between documentary and fiction – something that’s cinematically entertaining enough to coax more people to theatres than a documentary ever could.
Watch A Prayer for Rain for the subject, if nothing else. And because in this extreme disaster, you will see reflected stories of negligence, cutting corners and exploitation that, 30 years later, still continue to be relevant.