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A film about the Union Carbide industrial disaster in India is courting controversy

Martin Sheen's latest film about the world's worst industrial disaster faces protests from Indian activists.

Martin Sheen plays the role of Union Carbide chief executive Warren Anderson in the film Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain.
Martin Sheen plays the role of Union Carbide chief executive Warren Anderson in the film Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain.

The first feature film to be made on the world's worst industrial disaster at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, Central India, 27 years ago, is set to face protests from local groups that work with the victims.

Starring Martin Sheen as the Union Carbide chief executive Warren Anderson and Mischa Barton as a Paris Match reporter, Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, is slated for release early this year.

But Rachna Dhingra, of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, who has read the script but not seen the film, says it is an "insult" to the victims.

"It blames Union Carbide India totally for the gas leak while letting the parent company in the US off the hook even though it was aware of the daily operations of the plant. And it portrays Anderson like some saintly guy who wanted to help people but wasn't somehow able to," she says.

The director, Ravi Kumar, is unperturbed by the threat from Dhingra's group and from other Bhopal activists to try to stop the screening of the film in India, or at least campaign against it.

For him, it's been a "life changing" experience to tell the story of the thousands who died in agony and the thousands still suffering from congested lungs, cancers and congenital defects caused by the toxic gas that leaked from the factory on the nights of December 2 and 3, 1984.

More than 3,000 people died immediately after toxic gas leaked from a storage tank at the Union Carbide factory, which made pesticide. Thousands more died later from the after-effects. Around 19,000 people still suffer chronic ailments from having inhaled the deadly methyl isocyanate. And Bhopal babies are still being born with severe abnormalities because their mothers, children at the time, breathed in the chemical.

Kumar said that he was prompted to make the film out of surprise at the lack of awareness about the disaster among the younger generation. Given how many films had been made about September 11, why not Bhopal? Particularly as the survivors are around to tell the tale and so are some of the main culprits.

"Bhopal is not too distant in the memory, so it's still relevant to people around the world. New information has emerged and a more wholesale, multi-point of view story can be told that would not have been possible, say, 10 or 15 years ago," he says.

On the fateful night when poor Indians who lived in the shanty town around the plant woke up choking on the pestilential fumes, it was a malignant wind that pushed up the fatalities by spreading the gas farther than it would otherwise have gone. The title Prayer for Rain refers to the fact that if there had been rain that night, far fewer people would have died.

The film's relevance, says Kumar, stems from the fact that it is not an Indian story but a universal one in the sense that environmental disasters and accidents, such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, continue to happen. What interests him is the complex set of causes behind them.

"The blueprint mechanism of all accidents is the same: lack of corporate governance, greed, cost-cutting. There may be another Bhopal brewing somewhere right now … We won't know till it hits the headlines. If Prayer for Rain can stop even a small accident from happening, we will have achieved our aim," he says.

The question of who was responsible for the disaster has always been hugely controversial. Was it the negligence of the Indian managers and officials at the plant who were running it? Or the parent company in the US?

Only last year, a quarter of a century later, did an Indian court convict seven Indian employees of Union Carbide India. As for Anderson, he never returned to India to face criminal charges and the Indian government never managed to get him extradited to India because its efforts were so half-hearted.

Anderson lives in Long Island, New York, and is almost 90. He has never broken his silence about the tragedy or how he feels about the deaths and suffering caused by the leak. The film reportedly includes a scene in which Barton's character lands at Anderson's (Sheen's) doorstep to ask whether he has been haunted all his life about the gruesome manner in which so many died. Allegedly, this is based on a real-life incident. In the scene, Anderson just looks furious and shuts the door.

For Dhingra, the film is flawed in its depiction of the Union Carbide (later bought by Dow Jones) management and the burden of responsibility is not accurately shown. For Bhopal disaster activists, Anderson is an ogre. They regularly burn his effigy to express their loathing for him.

Dhingra says her group had expressed its reservations about the way Anderson was portrayed in the film to Sheen. He was apparently "supportive" of their concerns initially but in the end neither he nor the producer nor the director showed any interest in acting on their objections.

Kumar says it is obvious that Anderson must shoulder the responsibility for the disaster. "Even Martin Sheen insisted on the same conclusion. In fact, he rewrote some scenes to make sure Anderson's character comes across as culpable. But making Anderson a James Bond-like villain would have been counterproductive and might have made the film look like a Bollywood movie, which would have isolated non-Indian audiences," he explains.

Moreover, he says, the strongest impulse behind the film is precisely to convey the emotions and reactions of the victims' relatives and survivors so the question of "insulting" the victims simply does not arise.

"We have treated the story with the utmost respect and gravity," Kumar says. "All the politics and media noise is all derivative and secondary and not important to us. The Indians who have seen the work-in-progress film agree that we have made India proud by making this epic film on a small budget for a world audience."

artslife@thenational.ae

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