This month, it will be exactly 30 years since the Bhopal gas tragedy, the world’s biggest industrial disaster. In September, Warren Anderson died, without ever having faced trial in India for his role in the horrific catastrophe. Anderson was the then-CEO of Union Carbide, the American pesticide factory from which 40 tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked out into surrounding shanties, murdering thousands of people and animals, its aftereffects still killing and maiming generations. 30 years, still no justice.
Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain shows how Union Carbide flouted major safety precautions, resulting in the gas leak. The film, directed by Ravi Kumar, is a half-baked, fictionalized retelling, with real protagonists like Warren Anderson (played with depth by Martin Sheen) and the persistent journalist Motwani (Kal Penn), and some created for dramatic effect like the rickshaw puller Dilip (Rajpal Yadav).
This docudrama-like feature follows a typical trajectory, largely told through Dilip’s eyes as he becomes a safety worker at Union Carbide when a co-worker, his own bastiwala, dies of chemical poisoning. Yadav, and Tannistha Chatterjee playing his wife, spark empathy in us as they see hope in the very factory that ultimately crushes them. Anderson is given some altruistic layers and Sheen captures that well, but the character quickly slips into stereotype with trite lines.
In fact, the film falters through its dialogues – the Hindi bits are strong, but it rings fake as the Indian characters slip into English. Another weak link is the stiff Mischa Barton, playing a French journalist who accuses Anderson of running the plant dangerously. Penn gets the tenacious part of Motwani right, but his Hindi is awkward, and his garish shirts give his hard-nosed journalist a caricaturish touch.
There is a sense of drama in the final moments, in the manner that the gas leak is shot: the chaos at the general hospital, the bodies strewn in the slums, on the hospital steps, in the streets. It’s commendable that the film relives the terrible tragedy of the gas leak, but sadly, it has few moments that are extraordinary or even genuinely moving. I’m going with two out of five.