How did you bag the role of Motwani, a journalist who wants to expose the wrong practises of the Union Carbide officials in Bhopal …? And what about you Tanishtha?
Kal Penn: Our director Ravi Kumar sent me the script that he and co-writer David Brooks had penned, and their adaptation and character appealed to me – I found it to be an incredibly complex story.
Tanishtha Chatterjee: Leela is a very humane character. She protects and cares for her family and loves them immensely, but she too has her ambitions. Although, she portrays the essence of a traditional Indian woman, she is strong and is the driving force that binds the family.
How did you prepare for your role?
KP: There was a lot of prep involved, especially regarding the historical context of the story, and making sure that the period was accurate. The writers and director also went to great lengths to research everything they could, in order to do justice to our fictional adaptation. There was also a fair bit of language prep on my part as I don’t speak Hindi fluently in real life, but my character does. This was a welcome challenge.
How was the experience of working on the project? What were the difficulties, if any, that you faced while shooting the film? Did the team face any bureaucratic hurdles?
KP: In terms of difficulties, anytime you shoot an independent film, there are budgetary constraints, scheduling issues, and major challenges related to locations and timing. Those can be tough. Our team was really fantastic, and slowly but surely pushed ahead. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve taken five years to release it. This was a real labour of love of our director who had the dedication to see it through.
TC: I don’t think there were many bureaucratic hurdles than the usual that you always face while shooting in India. But it is a sensitive film and it had to be done with utmost passion and care. The major hurdle that we faced was getting funds for the project.
Was the film shot entirely in Bhopal?
KP: The film was shot primarily in Hyderabad, with some scenes picturised in Mumbai and Los Angeles. I believe they did some second unit shots on the ground and from the air in Bhopal, but that wasn’t our actual location.
Tanishtha, how was it working with actors like Martin Sheen, Kal Penn, Rajpal Yadav in Bhopal …? What did you get to learn from them?
TC: It has been a fabulous experience working with Martin Sheen, Rajpal Yadav, etc. I have to thank my director Ravi Kumar who gave me this opportunity. You learn humility, professionalism and compassion working with great actors like Martin Sheen.
What was the response to the film on the international circuit and what are your expectations from the Indian audience?
KP: So far, we have been blessed with a really responsive audience. We received a very good response in Tokyo and our early screenings across India, in New York and Los Angeles . We are, practically speaking, a global film: the cast is American, Indian, and European. The crew is from Europe and the US, the producers are Indian, American, and British, so those joint sentiments, I think, are projected in the film. In the States, awareness of the actual tragedy upon which our adaptation is based, is relatively low, so we had the audience leaving the theater in shock, having really animated conversations about the merits of things like environmental regulations or discussing how something like this could happen in real life. There were some very sentimental opinions that we overheard.
What prompted you to do an off-beat film like Bhopal…? Do you feel that justice will be given to the victims after all these years?
KP: Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain is more than just a film for me. I don’t even know where to start talking about justice. I very strongly feel that the film could start an awareness about a forgotten chapter, and more importantly also warn about such disasters in the future. The film has a much larger scale than just that incident. It is a critical portrayal of capitalism in its worse form where you cut corners to maximise profits by exploiting resources and people. And when disaster strikes, you just leave them to deal with their misery.
Is the film, in a way, an extension of your personal and political beliefs?
KP: I think the most interesting roles are the ones where your character is different from you.
Do you think films with a social messages really reach out to the masses and are able to make a social impact? These films receive acclaim at international festivals, but they do not really percolate down to the masses.
TC: Bhopal… is not a film, it’s an experience. And I can only hope that people would share this experience with compassion. That is the only way to make a social impact. With the educated middle-class growing in strength, we find a growing audience in India that is able to accept different genre of films. And Bhopal… is an Indian story, so it should find a resonance with the audience.
You have played varied characters on screen for television and in films. What is the thought process while selecting a particular role?
KP: I love the art of storytelling, especially the notion that a captive audience can suspend their disbelief and really invest in characters, stories, or relationships that they may never encounter in real life. There’s a magic in that which I really enjoy. So anytime a character is particularly compelling, I gravitate towards that.
TC: For me, it is interesting scripts. I try to take up different stories and scripts which raise questions instead of just sermonising. As artistes, our duty is to be curious and raise questions about various aspects of our society. I love doing films which try to do that.
How do you perceive the role of actresses in Hindi films as compared to Hollywood films?
TC: The world predominantly is still patriarchal. It’s a little more open in developed countries than it is in India. However, even in the West, women have to struggle to really get an equal footing. Indian films are a reflection of the society we live in. At the present moment, India is going through a revolution. Women are emerging out of their shells and speaking up. Although the process is gradual, Indian films are slowly reflecting these changes. As a culture, we still only like to see women in their youthful, pristine beauty. The moment they mature, we make them mothers and strip them of all desires and joys of life.
How did the acting bug bite you?
KP: I went to a performing arts high school as a kid, followed by classes at the New Jersey Governor’s School for the Arts, Atlantic Theater Company in New York, and University of California, Los Angeles School of Theater, Film, and Television.
TC: It’s a cliche, but I shall repeat it nevertheless. ‘Life is what happens to you while you keep making plans’. So I really don’t know how it happened.
Kal, you have lived all your life in America, did you, as a child, visit India? If so, what were your impressions of the country?
KP: We would visit India frequently as kids, to spend time with grandparents, cousins and the family. I loved visiting the country and in fact, still do. As an adult, it’s also wonderful to have the chance to come to India to work as well – there is such a vibrant film scene here. I love this opportunity to work here and balance family time with some professional endeavours.
Tanishtha, you have worked in many foreign productions. How different is it working abroad as compared to India?
TC: We are artists. We break boundaries and one of the most crucial elements of breaking boundaries is acceptance. In my experience of working all over the world, I have come to this conclusion that barring some cultural differences, which are external elements, people and their emotions, their biases, contradictions, idiosyncrasies, beauty and compassion are same all over the world.