B hopal: A Prayer for Rain is an uneven film drawn in broad strokes — nevertheless its heart is completely in the right place, making it compulsory viewing, some 30 years after a tragedy where victims are still waiting for proper redress.
The events in Bhopal in 1984 have been called the world’s worst industrial disaster: a poisonous gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide factory left over 15,000 people dead and injured half a million.
To build up to the night of this disaster, director Ravi Kumar intercuts between various storylines, fictional, factual, and those rather loosely based on fact.
Dilip (Rajpal Yadav) is a debt-ridden rickshaw operator desperate for money to pay his debts, feed his wife (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and child, and marry off his sister. When he unexpectedly lands a job at the Carbide factory, he is ecstatic: life has finally handed him a lucky break. The twisted irony of this sentiment is not lost on the audience.
We have seen it’s the death of a worker, caused by chemicals regularly used at the Carbide factory, which has opened up this position for Dilip. Kumar succeeds well in painting a picture of factory working conditions that routinely flout basic health and safety regulations.
The fourth estate is represented by Mischa Barton as a lifestyle reporter, who adds little to the tale; and by Kal Penn who plays Motwani, a small-time journalist. Motwani senses there’s a terrible tragedy brewing at the Union Carbide factory, but given his florid dress sense and wild reporting style, no one takes him seriously.
Kumar, who co-wrote the script with David Brooks, does try to introduce shades of grey. For instance, if Carbide’s American management pronounces that “safety is a local issue, give me sales figures”, the Indians running the company are even more callous. One executive says: “They wouldn’t be making this stuff next to the schools and shopping malls if they thought it was dangerous.”
The director even tries to offer a humanist edge to Warren Anderson (Martin Sheen), the chief executive of the Union Carbide Corporation. Mr. Anderson, incidentally, died earlier this year and was never brought to trial.
The movie opens with the disclaimer: “Based on true events but certain cinematic liberties have been taken for dramatic effect.” However, the result is neither a work of gonzo journalism, nor is there the dramatic punch of “cinematic liberties”.
Still, I both understood and supported people who clapped at the end of Kumar's film — Bhopal is a cautionary tale with enough emotional punch and tragedy to spare, and one that still needs to be heard. Urgently.