Soon after the death of Warren Anderson, chairman and CEO of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), was confirmed last Friday, American news portals said that the 92-year-old escaped “the horror of deja vu of the Bhopal gas tragedy play out on screens in the US”. Anderson had warded off his extradition to India for almost 30 years. With his death, he evaded the reaction Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain is likely to generate when it releases on November 7.
“While writing the script, we reached out to Mr Anderson as we believed he had a right to his version. But unfortunately, he ignored our requests. So, we re-created his character based on historical facts and his public speeches,” says director Ravi Kumar. The film digs deep into what caused the gas leak but does not “demonise Anderson’s character”, played by Martin Sheen. “We give the facts to our audience to decide who was at fault,” says UK-based Kumar.
The decision to release the movie in the US was taken purely for logistical reasons. “The US cinemas are busiest in December while in India it was important that we release the film in December as a mark of respect to the victims,” he says. The movie releases at New York City’s Village East Cinema this Friday and will play in other theatres later in the month. Its cast includes Martin Sheen, Kal Penn, Mischa Barton, Rajpal Yadav and Tannishtha Chatterjee.
Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, a social thriller, shows the events that led to the leakage of toxic gas at Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) — majority of whose stakes were owned by UCC — on the night of December 2, 1984. One of the world’s worst chemical disasters, it took nearly 3,800 lives immediately and exposed nearly 5 lakh people to the gas. In the subsequent decades, 15,000 to 20,000 premature deaths have happened due to the after effects of the gas leak.
Kumar, who has directed Guilty Hearts (2006), believes this is the right time for the Bhopal tragedy on the big screen. “Thirty years have gone by so we have an emotional distance from the tragedy, for an objective assessment. At the same time, the story is relevant to engage the younger generations who would be interested in learning from it,” he says.
Sheen concurs, “When I was invited to participate in the film about the Bhopal incident, I felt compelled to accept. And the response to the film here reinforces the faith I had in the subject.”
The film has had a good festival run, apart from preview screenings and a special show at a youth assembly in the United Nations. “The US audience, as you can understand, is quite varied, from the New York City-based liberal intellectuals to the Mid-West where a big international news gets small coverage in back pages. So, most of the time the US audience reacts, ‘Why have we never heard of this tragedy?’. Some younger people believe the film is fictional. So we had to add news photos and statistics to show it was real,” says Kumar.
The team spent five years on research. This involved browsing through Union Carbide correspondence, archives, speaking to survivors and interviewing the company’s staff and many visits to Bhopal. “We interviewed many survivors and families of victims. We created our lead character, Dilip (played by Yadav), a menial worker who gets a job at Carbide but keeps quiet due to his loyalty to the Carbide bosses. On the fateful night he dies, blaming himself while Union Carbide walks away without taking responsibility,” says Kumar. The film has dramatised these moral and ethical dilemmas to generate curiosity and turn it into a thriller.