Bhopal Gas Tragedy film in talks with Western distributors

A still from A Prayer for Rain, a film about the Bhopal gas Tragedy

A still from A Prayer for Rain

Bhopal Gas Tragedy film in talks with Western distributors

11 March 2014

By Naomi Canton

A feature film based on true events of the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy which killed thousands of Indians is finally in talks with distributors for a UK/USA release after a difficult time on the festival circuit.

A Prayer for Rain was a resounding success as the Closing Night Gala Film of the Asia House Pan-Asian Film Festival and also received glittering praise from Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha, who was present in the audience, at the ICA screening held on Sunday 9 March 2014, and spoke during the Q and A session.

Michael Ryan, executive producer of the feature film said: “We have an interesting conundrum as it is a documentary film in terms of its projection and appeal and yet it is not a documentary and getting that across to distributors is difficult. Film Festivals are difficult and they can be very snobbish and subjective too, so for example, the reply we had from Cannes was that the film was wonderful but too commercial. It’s definitely a controversial film to make.”

The film had its UK Premiere during the Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival but it has not been screened at all in India yet. Ryan said this was deliberate as they wanted to release it in the West first to establish it as an international movie and reach a wider audience.

“We don’t want it to be and Indian movie about an Indian problem,” he said. “It’s an movie about a massive tragedy. We are trying to establish it as an international movie. If we open this in India it will become an Indian movie about an Indian problem that will be pirated all over the world and we have to be careful about that.”

But he added: “We would like to see the film have an Indian premiere at Bhopal. It would be incredible on the 30th anniversary of Bhopal, which is this year.”

The filmmakers recently dropped Bhopal from the title to remove connotations of it being a documentary.

Ryan said they just wanted as many people as possible to see it. “Many filmmakers wish to see their films plastered on the big screen but that’s not the only way to get it across. There is social media and Netflix as well.”

The Indian director of the movie Ravi Kumar, who also works as an NHS paediatrician and lives in west London, was more hopeful it would make it on to the big screen and said they were currently in talks to have it released in cinemas in the UK, USA and India. Kumar said they would only go down another route if they didn’t get a theatrical release this year, the 30th anniversary.

Kumar hails from a place 200 miles from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh and has lived in the UK for 15 years. This is his first feature film.

“The film was too commercial and mainstream for some festivals or too Indian for others,” he said, explaining how the film was turned down by Cannes, Toronto and Venice Film Festivals. “We are still looking for a theatrical release as we think this film will attract a broad audience and it will be counterproductive if we go to TV directly and we think it would appeal to a Western audience. We are talking to distributors about a small-platform release. Many independent films not made in studios that should get released struggle to get released and many films made in studios that should not get released are released,” he said.

A Prayer for Rain is not alone. Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win eight Oscars, also had a difficult time on the festival circuit before it was released in 2009 and it nearly went straight to DVD.

Kumar reiterated what Ryan said, that the film would definitely get released in India at some point and they expected strong interest there, but they wanted to release it in the West first.

Kumar said he initially approached several Bollywood stars including Slumdog Millionaire stars Irrfan Khan and Anil Kapoor for the journalist character Motwani’s role but they turned it down. In the end he cast Kal Penn who he was very pleased with, he said.

He said he first wrote the script with Motwani as the protagonist. He then showed it to scriptwriter David Brooks who came up with the idea of a rickshaw driver as the protagonist so they kept Motwani (who is based on a real journalist) as a subplot.

He said one of the aims of the film was to raise awareness among younger people about the disaster, to bring people to justice, get the site cleaned up and that “someone should say sorry to the victims.”

As for Bhopal today, Kumar said: “There is no closure for the people in Bhopal today. They feel defeated but are getting on with their lives. People are angry and shocked but over the past 30 years they have got on with their lives but they are still angry about the compensation which was $300 to $500 per corpse which is astonishing. The factory is still in the middle of the town,” he said.

Union Carbide paid a final settlement sum of $470m (Rs 2, 600 crore) to the Government of India in 1989 to compensate those affected by the tragedy but it has so far evaded criminal proceedings.

American chemical giant Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide Corporation in 2001, has been summoned to appear before a court in Bhopal on 4 July 2014 to present its stand with regard to the Bhopal gas leak disaster of December 1984. Dow Chemical has always denied responsibility for the disaster pointing out it acquired Union Carbide 16 years after the tragedy and so had no involvement.

However the groundwater and soil remain contaminated by toxic chemicals that were allegedly dumped when the plant, which is now under the authority of the Madhya Pradesh state government, closed. The site is yet to be cleaned up and people continue to live near it.

“I don’t know why this is – it could be there was no political will to clean it up or the technical skills were not available in India but I have heard that a German company has been contracted to clean up the site now,” Kumar said.

He spent a long time interviewing survivors and corroborating stories to create the film. A Bhopal survivor who saw the film on Sunday told him it portrayed the events exactly as they unfolded, he said.

The reason very few films, apart from the likes of Bhopal Express (1999), have been made about the gas leak was because it took place 30 years ago, he explained. “People have forgotten about it. If it had happened in a Western country I am sure it would have been made into a Hollywood film. I think it’s because it’s a different corner of the world.”

He added he had studied the Fukushima nuclear disaster and there was a template of human errors that led to these kind of catastrophes.

The chairman of Union Carbide at the time, Warren Anderson, continues to lives in the USA despite a request by the Indian Government to extradite him.

Kumar said: “We didn’t want to make Anderson a James Bond villain as we would have got discredited outside India,” he said. “If you see him as one-sided it becomes like a dramatic Bollywood film appealing to Indian audiences and less appealing to Western audiences.”

But he pointed out the film blames Union Carbide for the tragedy. He said, based on his research, the accident happened when the site was closed for maintenance, because an untrained worker poured water in to the system which entered the MIC (methyl isocyanate) tanks and four hours later there was a big leak. He said untrained staff were being used because of cost cutting from the top.

“People say that budgetary controls and costs caused it,” he said.

“We did not want to make a sad film about poverty in India. We wanted to make a warm uplifting film about a sad subject,” he said.

Brooks said: “I heard about Bhopal when I first went to India and the key thing to decide was how to present Anderson and I hope that what we tried to do succeeded – that is to humanise him and make him 3D and understandable in what he did. I think the biggest issue in Bhopal today is the lack of closure and legal let down,” he added.


To read a review of A Prayer for Rain click here.