The setting is Bhopal: the city of lakes in the heart of India and the site of the Union Carbide Corporation insecticide factory.
The people: a loyal factory worker needs to keep his job to pay for his sister’s wedding. The chief of an American chemical company sees a huge demand for insecticide in India’s green revolution. A gritty and flamboyant journalist wants to expose the dangers that tons of poisonous chemicals in the factory pose to the city.
The dialogues: We won’t let the factory close. Her husband was murdered by carbide. He didn’t wear a protective suit. What is the maximum pressure of this valve? We don’t want to scare the basti wallahs. This factory feeds this town. These old workhorses still growing strong -- American engineering. I’m your chairman but first and foremost I’m a Carbider. My other collar is blue –- you know my father was a plumber--if you work hard enough you can achieve anything. I’m just a hardworking yank trying to make a weed killer. I wanted Carbide to be at the heart of the (green) revolution. It’s a third world country, it’s always messy. More people died waiting for help than those who died that night. Union Carbide has never apologised.
More than 20,000 people died from the deadly methyl isocyanate gas that leaked out from the Union Carbide Corporation factory on December 3, 1984. Hundreds of thousands are still chronically sick.
BP paid $42 billion for the cleanup, compensation and fines after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. The Indian government settled for $470 million with Union Carbide in 1989, which equals about $1,666 for one dead person and $416 for most of the injuries. The United States government did not respond to India’s request to extradite Warren Anderson, chief of Union Carbide, who died in September without facing trial. No one from the UCC has gone to jail. None of the toxic waste, which is a health hazard for residents of Bhopal, has been removed from the factory. Victims are still demanding fair compensation and clean up of toxins that pollute their groundwater. DOW Chemicals, which bought UCC in 2001, refuses to accept any liability linked to the gas leak.
Ravi Kumar, the director of the new film Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, tells us about why we should remember the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and how he got Martin Sheen to play Anderson for his movie which marks the passage of 30 years without closure.
QWhy is the movie called Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain?
AThe MIC chemical itself is water soluble and many people survived that night by washing their faces with water. Some experts argue that rainfall that night would have saved many more lives. Based on these facts the film makers titled the film: A Prayer For Rain. Also there was a severe drought in [the] 80s, forcing farmers to abandon buying seeds and pesticides. Hence Carbide was losing money forcing it to cut down costs on safety and maintenance. Some Carbide workers used to pray for rain so Carbide could become profitable again.
Q Tell us about your journey to make this movie and the potholes along the way?
A Most of the producers in Bollywood and Hollywood found the story not commercial enough. We had to find producers who care about environment, social injustice and [the] common people of India. Through Rising Star Entertainment we were able to approach Sahara who did not need much persuasion, as they really wanted to tell this story to world. Initially our plan was to make an independent small movie but with Sahara resources we made our canvas bigger that does justice to the magnitude of the disaster.
Q Why is it important to tell the story of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy after 30 years?
A The story itself is a spicy mix of corporate greed, corruption, and emotional loyalty that proves futile, and the inevitable disaster that itself is dramatic enough to qualify for a thriller. But that is not the reason why we chose to make this film. The mechanism for most industrial disasters (BP oil spill, Exxon Valdez leak) is eerily familiar; cost-cuttings, corporate greed, exotic location, untrained staff and ignorance of early warning signs by the management. We want to make sure accidents such as Bhopal belong to the history books, never to be seen in news. This story has relevance for future generations. The story is old enough to be told with an emotional distance where events can be analysed objectively. And the issue is recent enough to be relevant to the world.
Q Why the genre of a social thriller?
A We made this emotionally engaging thriller for the world audience who were not even born a the time of Bhopal the disaster. While being entertained with a world class thriller, they also learn about the disaster. We have had young audiences in tears after watching the film, thanking the film makers for making them aware of the subject so they can do something about it. A dry documentary or a classroom lecture may not have the same impact with young audiences with short attention span.
Q What impact are you hoping that your movie makes in India?
A We hope people learn about the disaster and also the ongoing suffering of the survivors and we can do something about the Carbide plant still sitting in middle of Bhopal and polluting the water.
Q Why did you want Martin Sheen to play the role of Warren Anderson? Could you tell us about how you got him to sign on for the movie?
A Martin was our first and only choice. During a pitching session in San Francisco, I met two gentlemen who became our executive producers. They called me one week later [and told me] that Martin liked the script. It was perfect with Martin due to his political beliefs and advocacy. I think with hindsight all the US actors said yes immediately, as the script was quite compelling and emotionally engaging.
Q Did you have any interaction with Warren Anderson over the making of this movie? Has his family said anything about the movie?
A We, David Brooks, the writer and Martin Sheen tried to contact Union Carbide and Mr. Anderson, but there was radio silence. So we had to recreate our own reality and sequence of events for the screenplay based on the information available. One of Anderson's family friends saw the film in New York and she was moved emotionally, as she did not know the suffering and trauma the victims had to go through.
Q Do you think Mr. Anderson should have stood trial? What crossed your mind when you heard about his death in September?
A Yes. Mr. Anderson should have answered questions both in court and to victims and survivors and apologise personally and on behalf of Carbide. This may not have helped the dead, but at least the anger and shock of survivors would have been channeled and this would have been a decent thing for him to do.
Q Tell us about one or two of the most emotional moments that you experienced while making this movie?
A When shooting climax scenes, we asked actors to walk as if blinded by burning chillies and leave the loved ones behind. It was very emotional, as children were left behind as people were stumbling in the dark. It occurred to us that this would have happened to thousands of people that night. It's simply unimaginable.
Q Most of the filming was in Hyderabad. But did you spend some time in Bhopal? How did you find the city?
A Yes of course we had to shoot in Bhopal, emphasising all the landmarks and streets and, of course, the Carbide plant. Bhopal now is a beautiful city with trees and lakes and once the Carbide plant is removed it will be a great step toward restoring to its former glory.
Check out the trailer: