December 3 marked the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy which claimed more than 10,000 lives. A film based on the incident releasing in theaters this week is certainly timely. Director Ravi Kumar’s Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain is an important film for sure, unfortunately it’s not a very well made one.
The film was shot five years ago, and the story of the struggle to get it in theaters would probably be more interesting than the film itself. The problem is, the film is neither a thriller, nor a detailed account of the event, nor an ethical rumination on the tragedy. It’s told through the eyes of a host of severely underdeveloped characters, including local journalist Motwani (played by Kal Penn), an American journalist (Misha Barton), a rickshaw driver turned factory worker (Rajpal Yadav), his wife (Tanisshtha) and Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide (played by Martin Sheen). All of these characters exist not to tell an interesting story, but to render one dimensional socio political context to the film.
The film exists to become a powerful and evocative reminder of a ghastly event, but the filmmaking itself is not very accomplished to furnish those elements. The dialogue and the acting are unacceptably bad, and it makes the film look like a bad TV movie. The treatment ranges from melodramatic to over the top. The bad guys in the film are a tad unintentionally funny. Sheen’s Anderson makes the clichéd statements of how him being a businessman ranks above his humanity (or the lack of it), and that common diseases like malaria kill more Indians than little factory accidents. The music by Benjamin Wallfisch also doesn’t give much maturity to the film. The decision to sentimentalize things by telling the story from the POV of manipulative characters obscures some of the real horrors of the tragedy.
Most frustrating is the fact that the film doesn’t make any statement about what happened post the tragedy. It ends with harrowing sequences of people getting affected by the leaked gas and eventually killed. There are scenes where we see scores of dead lying on a railway track, and others bleeding profusely, wriggling in hospital beds screaming in agony. It’s all supposed to move you but it just doesn’t, because the film doesn’t give you anything to ponder over. Is the plight of India’s poor irreparable? What is their place in the gray space between corporations and capitalist agenda? Did Anderson have much of a choice? What happened after the tragedy? Where do we go from here now? Is this how every single large corporation in the world works? How different are we today compared to 1984? Did the incident unspool any labor laws and security measures to make the country a safer place? What should the Indian government have done to bring him to justice? The film offers nothing, just a few manipulative images to make the afternoon soap viewers moderately steal a glance.
Even with all these flaws it is difficult to fault the film’s intentions. It’s quite possible that there was a better film gestating on the cutting room floor and it got lost after constant setbacks during the half a decade long production. Perhaps we’ll see that film someday, and it would hopefully be a little less melodramatic.
(First published in Firstpost)