December 6 2014
London-based director Ravi Kumar explained his motivation and thinking behind his first feature release as Indian critics pick at certain aspects…
JUST the word itself sounds grim and off-putting, so why subject yourself to 95 minutes of grimness and sadness?
The film, “Bhopal – A Prayer for Rain” is really nothing like that, featuring an all-star international cast that includes Martin Sheen, Kal Penn, Mischa Barton and Tannishtha Chatterjee, this is a tight, taut, involving drama, as London-based first time feature director Ravi Kumar told us earlier this year.
There’s also a pair of stray nipples, but let’s leave that for later.
Now released in India, having been first screened in US cinemas last month, the film, which examines the worst industrial accident of our times in the Indian city 30 years ago on December 3, has received mixed reviews in India on its arrival (December 5).
Primarily, it’s not a film made for the Indian cinema market and comes as groups and activists mark the 30th anniversary of the accident, which is said to have claimed 10,000 lives and remains the cause of continuing misery and ill health for the city’s inhabitants.
It isn’t a Bollywood film and there are no song and dance sequences (even at the end), and yes, there is a focus on several different characters, including a poor family – which has put some Indian critics’ backs up…almost naturally.
“It doesn’t look like an Indian film,” Kumar told www.asianculturevulture.com. “It’s an international film made with a 100 per cent Indian money (Sahara One Entertainment) with international actors brought to India. It’s a very tight film.
“When we showed it to some young people they thought it was just a fiction, we had to put some photographs in there to show that it really happened.”
Credit must go to Sahara for sinking the estimated $6m (£4.5m) million budget on this because it’s not an easy sell on paper – anywhere and especially in India.
But it has a strong heart and deserves to do well – not just because the cause alone is worthy (and it is) – but in many ways, it’s a decent film which works very well on its own terms.
“It shows that Indian people can make an international quality film – most of my crew was Indian – and it proves you can make an international type Hollywood movie there,” trumpeted Kumar, whose previous short efforts were high profile and attracted much attention – “Notting Hill Anxiety Festival” with Julie Delpy (2003) and “My other wheelchair is a Porsche” (2001).
Kumar is a paediatrician who moved to London in 1994 and started his filmmaking career with shorts.
What “Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain” does is humanise the issue and tells an effective story without reverting to anything ostentatious or self-consciously arty – though perhaps the last scene is an attempt at this.
Kumar takes us back some time before the tragedy – in fact, it is only in the last 20 minutes or so that the film ostensibly turns into Bhopal, the tragedy.
Getting Sheen on board was a class move – his presence in western film and TV alone represents a liberal goodness (largely derived both from his off screen and onscreen persona – as the conscience of a liberal nation in the US White House-based TV series, “West Wing”).
To many, the real culprit for Bhopal was US Union Carbide company chief Warren Anderson, who died only this September aged 92.
He, and the company he ran, always maintained the tragedy was the fault of disgruntled Indian employees and after travelling to the site in the immediate aftermath, he never returned to India, retiring a year later to the relative seclusion and tranquillity of Florida, despite the controversy that continued to envelope him.
Kumar and co-screenwriter David Brooks (who also plays Union Carbide PR, Shane) were keen not to turn the Anderson character into an obvious or hackneyed bogeyman and he isn’t.
In the film, we see a rather attractive and believable side of Anderson, as Sheen so suitably embodies.
Union Carbide, which was later sold and is now part of Dow Chemicals, was in India for some years prior to the tragedy and this was long before the liberalisation of India’s economy and the proliferation of global brands and products you find there today.
Union Carbide helped to produce a pesticide that was widely used by Indian farmers and you get some idea of the zeal and passion Anderson displayed for his company to bring its wares to yet greater numbers, wherever they were and whatever the economic model at the time (in that country).
What the film does is show all sides and it doesn’t seek to blame anyone in an accusatory manner – though its sympathies are clear and correct.
Kumar had read “Five Past Midnight in Bhopal” by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro, which looks at the wider context in which the tragedy had occurred.
It provided Kumar loosely with some ideas and an approach to a story he had already been thinking about.
“I was born a couple of hundred miles from Bhopal and it was such a huge tragedy.
“I wanted to do something that was pared down, small, personal and open it up for western audiences. I wanted it to be emotional.”
The beauty of this is that Kumar really does spend time with each principle character and we get a good idea of their motivations and beliefs.
Actor Penn has come under fire from some Indian critics for the way he portrays ‘Motwani’, the curious and freewheeling journalist, who sniffs out danger at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant long before it materialises.
It may be because the film is in English, it doesn’t work so easily on that level, but to English-speaking audiences Penn brings vitality, appropriate humour and credibility to the role.
Likewise Barton, a bonafide Hollywood hottie, is actually well cast as Eva Gascon.
She plays a glamourous French journalist researching a story for a Vogue type title, about a Bhopal noble who is descended from 16th century French aristocracy. The story is actually true. What she does (and by no means a substantial part) in the film is almost undermined by her wearing a rather flimsy top and no brassiere in one scene – perhaps it was just too hot that day for one. It was certainly wasn’t in the script sources later confirmed.
Central to the human drama in all this are Leela (Chatterjee) and Dilip (Rajpal Yadav). Initially, Dilip is involved in some form of petty or menial labour and is scraping a living – it’s only when he manages to get a job (ill-fated as it happens) at Union Carbide that his prospects improve. He has money and is able to support his young family and life is really not bad.
This starts to change as the company begin to cut costs and come under more pressure to be efficient – and as is often the way (in India especially), corners are cut without too much thought given to the consequences. The results are what matter and management is delighted and the Americans happily appeased.
Some critics in India think the ‘Dilip’ story is overcooked – there are claims that it plays into the stereotypes about the Indian poor and that it is clichéd, stale and presents a bad picture of India.
In some ways this is undeniable, but it doesn’t really matter because Kumar is trying to show something we can all connect with and believe.
Even still, Kumar told us that on its first ever screening and premiere at the Tokyo Film Festival last year, a Bhopal survivor had commended him for making such a real film.
“She told me it was authentic and that it took her back to that night – for a director that was something very good to hear.”
• ‘Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain’ in on release in India and the US now