Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival review: Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain

A still from A Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain

A still from Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain

Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival review: Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain

07 March 2014

By Naomi Canton

This film is a story about what happened in 1984 when the Bhopal Union Carbide plant leaked 40 tonnes of a deadly gas leaving more than 10,000 corpses on the streets and thousands of dead animals.

To take on the task of covering this monumental disaster in a feature film is a huge feat and the movie does it well by having a plot focused on a few characters. The timing of the screening is perfect too since 2014 is the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

The film, based on true events, explains why Union Carbide decided to set up in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, how the ticking time bomb of a factory was situated so close to slums and how many locals were initially delighted when the pesticide factory opened in the 1970s because it brought much-needed jobs to their poverty-stricken city.

But then on December 2nd, 1984, toxic gas methyl isocyanate leaked from the factory across the city.  Most people who died lived in the slums. Tens of thousands of people today still suffer from illnesses caused by the exposure.

Despite being about a real human catastrophe of immeasurable proportions, the film is engaging because of its human interest stories. We follow the life of Dilip, a rickshaw driver, who gets a job at the Union Carbide plant, hoping to earn enough money to pay for his sister’s wedding.

Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain is not a dark, depressing film like 12 Years A Slave or The Impossible, nor is it a documentary. Rather it has many light moments, as a feature film should. In that way it represents India, a country where people are renowned for their ability to look on the bright side. There is humour and a bit of romance too.

One of its highlights is its sensitive and realistic portrayal of slum life, capturing the everyday habits and lives of slumdwellers: kids play in scrap and run around freely while adults make the most of life despite having no basic infrastructure; there is a lively community spirit around the shops and small businesses interspersed between corrugated metal huts in the slums; even the stray dogs appear relatively happy as they sunbathe in the narrow alleyways where slum families live, chat and work. It captures their customs, needs, dreams, aspirations and fears; their daily struggles, the dangers and risks they face and yet the enjoyment they get from simple pleasures and their jokes.

The Hindi language in the film enhances the authenticity as Ravi Kumar captures the warmth and spirt, problems and pressures that slumdwellers endure. He does so without sensationalism or a Western mindset, in a way that only a director with a close connection to India can.

The movie does not blame any one company or individual solely for the disaster rather it explains the catalogue of errors that led to it and tells the story in a moving, captivating way.

There are some fantastic funny moments in the film too. I especially like the subplot with the local reporter Motwani (Kal Penn), who is keen to expose what is happening at the plant even before the disaster strikes.

Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain also reveals the workings of Indian newspapers, overcrowded Indian hospitals and the cosy nexus between politicians and businessmen. It captures the rich flavour of India showing the bazaars, chai stalls, and colourful life ordinary people lead. It shows more about the country than many mainstream films on India such as Slumdog Millionaire or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Apart from covering an industrial disaster, which needs further media attention because many of the perpetrators have evaded justice, the site is still contaminated and many people’s lives continue to be threatened, this film is also full of heart and encapsulates the complexity of India and life in large swathes of it that will make you fall in love with the country. It is more than a film about Bhopal. It is a movie about Indian life, looking at the common man rather than the super wealthy that Bollywood movies favour.

Title: Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain

Directed by: Ravi Kumar, who directed Guilty Hearts (2006). This is his second feature film.

Release:  The film received a market screening at Cannes Film Festival 2013 and then it had its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2013 when it was nominated for the Asian Future Best Film Award. This is the UK premiere. The film has no general release dates yet.

Starring: Martin Sheen, Kal Penn, Mischa Barton, Rajpal Yadav and Tannishtha Chatterjee

Running Time: 96 minutes

Language: The film is in a mix of English and Hindi, with English subtitles for the Hindi

See it if you like: Slumdog Millionaire

Type of film: Drama

Key selling point of film
This film surpasses other movies about India by Western directors because of the way it captures the heart and soul of India, particularly of slum life, which is both rich and full of spirit, as well as impoverished and toilsome. It looks at India through the eyes of a local and you come away feeling as though India has very much touched your heart.

The vague love story in the film is perhaps too simple and barely-covered. In a film like this, I would have liked to see a more powerful love story. I also would have liked to see more on modern-day Bhopal and  how life there is today. This is touched on at the end but without enough detail.

Plot summary
The film follows a rickshaw driver in the period leading up to the 1984 Union Carbide industrial disaster in Bhopal, known as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, and explores the series of errors that caused the calamity.

This film was shown at the ICA on Sunday 9 March, 2014 at 18.00 as the Closing Night Gala of the Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival.

To see the trailer of the film click below:-