As the world lurches from crisis to crisis, we tend to forget what happened in Bhopal, India on December 3, 1984. The explosion at a Union Carbide pesticide plant that released clouds of dangerous chemicals into the air quickly killed some ten thousand locals. It also launched a health crisis that continues to this day, as mothers genetically affected by the blast give birth to severely damaged children. Bhopal was, in fact, the worst industrial accident of all time. And there’s no end in sight.
Lest we forget, Indian pediatrician-turned-filmmaker Ravi Kumar has co-written and directed Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, a 2014 independent feature that spells out the events leading up to the tragedy as well as its cost in terms of human lives. Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain was screened last week for the press and budding Hollywood activists as part of Kat Kramer’s seventh annual Films that Change the World series. Featured guests included the very eloquent Tim Edwards, an Englishman who’s become the executive trustee of the Bhopal Medical Appeal. Edwards reminded his listeners that Bhopal, where thirty tons of poisonous gas spilled out into a densely populated slum area five miles square, was “a disaster with a beginning but no end.” In the absence of true leadership from the government of India and from Union Carbide (which has shrugged off all claims of responsibility), Edwards’ group has dedicated itself to founding medical clinics for those still suffering from what he likens to “chemical AIDS.” Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, in dramatically depicting the scope of the crisis, should encourage people of good conscience to support these fund-raising efforts. (Live-streaming of this event throughout the globe is one way in which current technology is helping to spread the word.)
One stand-out in this film is its cinematography, capturing the color of daily life in a small Indian city, and then presenting in excruciating detail the full sweep of the death and destruction. The original plan was to focus chiefly on an actual crusading journalist (portrayed by Kal Penn) who—aware of sloppy safety practices at the Union Carbide plant—predicted the disaster to come. But someone wisely recognized that this story belonged chiefly to the victims. A wonderfully likable Indian actor named Rajpal Yadav becomes the everyman figure whose determination to support his family puts him in the thick of the Union Carbide operation, which was intended to bring to an impoverished community much-needed jobs.
Yadav’s character is an innocent, but there is plenty of blame to go around. The Indian plant managers are portrayed as so oblivious to basic safety precautions that they shut off the essential cooling systems to save money. Then there’s the big boss of Union Carbide. As portrayed by Martin Sheen (who’s legendary in Hollywood for taking on major social issues), he’s an affable chap, one who genuinely wants the best for Indian workers—but will always put the needs of his company first. (This balanced portrait of the late Warren Anderson, who was personally devastated by what his factory had wrought, is apparently quite accurate.)
As Stanley Kramer’s daughter, Kat Kramer works hard to bring a progressive social consciousness to these events. That’s why this year she inaugurated an award honoring actress and social activist Marsha Hunt, who was present in all her nonagenarian glory. The still-elegant Hunt spoke movingly: “To be thanked for what gave me so much joy in my life is kind of crazy.” But I noticed that much of the evening’s press coverage went to the film’s co-star, Mischa Barton, for her plunging neckline. Ah, Hollywood!