"Union Carbide stores 40 tons of poison in the heart of Bhopal," says Motwani, a local journalist in "Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain", a docudrama thriller whose release coincided with the 30 year anniversary of the world's worst chemical disaster. The movie (in cinemas now) puts faces to the tragedy that was previously reduced to a regurgitation of the shocking death toll and hunger strikes, until this eventually caused the shock to wear off.
More than 20,000 people were killed from the Methyl Isocyanate that leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide factory in the predawn hours of December 3, 1984, and over 500,000 became very sick. Hundreds of thousands of survivors are still living with chronic illnesses from the gas. The Indian government settled with the Union Carbide for $470 million. No one from the company has spent time in prison.
Kal Penn, the actor who's best known for his role as the perpetually stoned Kumar in the Harold and Kumar series, plays Motwani in "Bhopal," a pushy journalist in relentless pursuit of exposing the threat posed by the Union Carbide Corporation. Motwani's character is based on Rajkumar Keswani, an award-winning journalist who warned of the negligent safety standards inside the American chemical plant.
Penn has served as an Obama administration staffer for public engagement. HuffPost India interviewed him about why the world needs to be reminded about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
Q When did you first hear of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy? What did you know about the Bhopal disaster before the film?
A I remember hearing about the disaster as a kid, and then read more in-depth in college, but really most of my knowledge based around the tragedy was through the research and prep process for this film.
Q Is there any story that you found particularly shocking or sad that has stayed with you?
A I think the overall story is what’s so impactful, the notion that there could be this perfect storm of incidents that lead to the disaster, everything from corporate greed to government corruption, that’s disturbing.
Q Why did you want to be part of Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain?
A I was apprehensive about the script before I read it. Once I read it, I saw how rounded and complex of an approach Ravi Kumar, our director, was taking, and I thought that was a really smart thing, to not dumb-down the story for the sake of simplicity. I thought the complexity was powerful, and playing an Indian journalist in the 1980s was also a totally different character and experience from some of the other characters I’ve had the chance to play.
Q What impact do you think that journalists have made with their coverage of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy over the past 30 years?
A I think like many issues that are important to cover over the course of years and decades, journalists and advocates alike have continued to delve into the disaster itself, but also the very real human, financial, and environmental toll taken.
Q Why do you think the Bhopal Gas Tragedy is still such a huge and painful story after 30 years? What impact would you like this movie to have?
A I think the fact that there has not been a full resolution to the disaster is one of the things that makes this such a painful story three decades later: cleanup of the site, continuing health concerns, and ever-pending litigation.
Q How was shooting in India different from the United States?
A Shooting in India was a blast -– there are so many young, emerging filmmakers here, it’s exciting.
Q Do you watch Indian movies? Any favorites? Is there anyone in India that you would like to work with?
A You know, I really like films like "Bombay Talkies," "The Lunchbox”, and “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer”. I’d love to work with folks like Zoya Akhtar, Ritesh Batra, and Anurag.
Q Most of the Bhopal movie was shot in Hyderabad. Did you get a chance to explore the city?
A We did get the chance to explore Hyderabad –- what a beautiful city, we had a blast. Hope to be able to shoot something there again soon, people were incredibly welcoming and warm.