Tag Archives: Bhopal

Movie Review: Bhopal — A Prayer for Rain (2014)

Bhopal_a_prayer_for_rain_poster3 Stars (out of 4)

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The 1984 industrial disaster at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, isn’t a common reference in the United States the way that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is, but it’s an event Americans should be aware of. Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain depicts a catastrophe of almost unbelievable proportions.

In 1969, American company Union Carbide builds a plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal to produce agricultural chemicals. By 1984, the decrepit plant situated in the middle of a slum struggles to make ends meet, as a drought decreases the market for the company’s products. One night in December of that year, a gas leak from the plant exposes a half-million Bhopal residents to toxic fumes.

The story of the tragedy is told from several perspectives, including those of Motwani (Kal Penn), a journalist desperate to warn the city of impending danger, and Roy (Joy Sengupta), a plant safety officer trying to prevent a disaster in the face of unsympathetic management, failing equipment, and unqualified staff.

At the film’s heart is Dilip (Rajpal Yadav), a rickshaw driver who quickly ascends from plant janitor to equipment safety monitor. He’s as unqualified for the job as everyone else at the plant, but he’s a devoted employee.

Dilip personifies the conundrum of the plant’s existence. There aren’t enough trained engineers available to operate the equipment, especially for the wages Carbide can pay in an unprofitable market. But Dilip’s meager paycheck is enough to lift his family out of dire poverty. Closing the plant permanently would economically devastate the city.

In the film, the events of the disaster coincide with the wedding of Dilip’s younger sister, an event made possible by the same company ultimately responsible for killing thousands and injuring scores of thousands more.

Though the filmmakers take sides regarding the cause of the disaster — citing corporate negligence as opposed to Carbide’s official attribution to sabotage by a disgruntled worker — the portrayal of the key figures is nuanced. Carbide’s CEO, Warren Anderson (Martin Sheen), expresses his desire to continue the social progress made possible by the Green Revolution of the 1960s. He’s proud of the economic opportunity the plant provides for the citizens of Bhopal.

Yet it takes a special kind of callousness to enable the circumstances that lead to the disaster. Anderson and Carbide refuse to admit that the chemical being manufactured in Bhopal — MIC — is dangerous to humans. Who would work there if it was? This denial leaves the ramshackle local hospital unequipped to handle an industrial disaster and gives most of the employees an unwarranted sense of security. If they were in danger, surely someone would tell them, right?

Perhaps the most chilling aspects of the story are the mechanisms are already in place to shield Carbide from corporate responsibility. The plant is technically run by an Indian subsidiary, so it’s the subsidiary’s fault for hiring untrained workers and letting the machines fall apart. It’s the subsidiary’s fault for failing to prepare for an accident that Carbide said couldn’t happen.

Scenes showing the night of the disaster are haunting not just because of the human suffering but because of the context in which it takes place. A deadly cloud blows through a shanty town of nearly half a million people going about their daily lives. As wedding guests start to fall ill, the expression in Dilip’s sister’s eyes is not fear of imminent doom but frustration: “Why is this happening on my special day?”

Performances in the film are generally good, especially Sheen’s role as Anderson. Mischa Barton’s turn as an American journalist is awkward and poorly integrated into the story. Though only the Hindi dialogue is subtitled, there are enough strong accents — including Kal Penn’s Indian accent and that of a European Carbide executive — that perhaps the English dialogue should’ve been subtitled as well.

Thirty years after the Bhopal disaster, industrial accidents caused by corporate irresponsibility are still too common all over the world. Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain implores us to (paraphrasing George Santayana) remember the past, so that we may stop repeating it.

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Bollywood Box Office: December 5-7

Action Jackson just posted the latest in the string of lousy box office performances by Bollywood movies in North America. Since the release of Happy New Year on October 24, 2014, all but two of the newly released Hindi movies have fallen short on a key performance metric.

That metric is per-screen average: the average amount earned by individual theaters showing a particular movie in a particular weekend. In North America in 2014, the median opening weekend per-screen average of the fifty Hindi movies for which I have reliable data is $1,971.

Here are the opening weekend per-screen averages of all the movies that have released here since HNY:

  • Super Nani: $608 ($26,742 from 44 theaters)
  • Roar: $99 ($4,927 from 50 theaters)
  • The Shaukeens: $698 ($52,377 from 75 theaters)
  • Bhopal: $5,948 ($5,948 from one theater)
  • Kill Dil: $1,977 ($172,001 from 87 theaters)
  • Happy Ending: $1,269 ($163,373 from 129 theaters)
  • Ungli: $838 ($56,151 from 67 theaters)
  • Action Jackson: $1,374 ($171,795 from 125 theaters)

Kill Dil opened with a per-screen average a few dollars above the median, and Bhopal‘s average was one of the highest of the year. Granted, Bhopal was a limited release that never played in more than two theaters at once.

There’s another factor to consider that makes many of these low per-screen averages look even worse in context: theater count. The median opening weekend theater count for Hindi films in North America in 2014 is 70.5. Given their comparatively low theater counts, distributors obviously didn’t expect Super Nani and Roar to take the box office by storm (they were right).

However, distributors were clearly expecting much more from star-driven films Happy Ending and Action Jackson. Both movies fall in the upper quartile of this year’s opening weekend theater counts (123 theaters and above). You don’t open in that many theaters unless you think you’ve got a hit on your hands.

It’s worth noting that the only other film in that upper quartile to earn less than the median per-screen average in its first weekend is Humshakals, Saif Ali Khan’s only other release in 2014 besides Happy Ending. Unless he’s planning to make Love Aaj Kal 2, opening weekend theater counts of fewer than 100 seem more reasonable for Khan in North America.

It’s as though most of the Bollywood fan base in the United States and Canada decided to take Fall off and stay home until Aamir Khan’s P.K. opens on December 19. Here’s hoping that film can close out 2014 with a bang.

Sources: Box Office Mojo and Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

Bollywood Box Office: November 14-16

This has been a lousy year for Yash Raj Films. Hopes were undoubtedly high after the titanic success of Dhoom 3 at the end of 2013, but none of the five films released by the company in 2014 has made much of a blip on the radar in North America.

Kill Dil‘s performance from November 14-16, 2014, cements that trend. During its opening weekend in the United States and Canada, Kill Dil earned $172,001 from 87 theaters, a per-screen average of $1,977.

To put this performance in context, the median number of opening weekend theaters for Hindi films in North America this year is 70, and the median per-screen average earnings are $2,022. All but one of the films released by Yash Raj Films this year opened in more theaters than the median (Bewakoofiyaan didn’t), but only one earned more than the median per-screen average (Gunday). Here’s how each Yash Raj film performed in its opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada this year:

  • Gunday: $548,350 from 150 theaters; $3,656 average
  • Bewakoofiyaan: $67,738 from 66 theaters; $1,026 average
  • Mardaani: $168,997 from 86 theaters; $1,965 average
  • Daawat-e-Ishq: $204,950 from 113 theaters; $1,814 average
  • Kill Dil: $172,001 from 87 theaters; $1,977 average

While none of these performances — except for Bewakoofiyaan — is disastrous, the studio and theaters surely expected more. Even Gunday was likely expected to earn $1 million (it fell short with $887,675 total). The name Yash Raj carries enough clout to command a significant number of screens, but the return on those screens should be higher given the studio’s profile and the emerging young stars and veteran talent the company casts.

Other Hindi movies still in North American theaters:

  • Happy New Year: Week 4; $64,792 from 45 theaters; $1,440 average; $3,702,530 total
  • Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain: Week 2; $5,794 from two theaters; $2,897 average; $12,110 total
  • The Shaukeens: Week 2; $735 from six theaters; $123 average; $75,546 total

Source: Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

Bollywood Box Office: November 7-9

It was the second bad weekend in a row for new Hindi films widely released in the United States and Canada. From November 7-9, 2014, The Shaukeens earned $52,377 from 75 theaters, a pathetic per-screen average of $698. The comedy suffered from a confusing, limited marketing campaign. Posters for the movie prominently featured Akshay Kumar, but his role was billed as a cameo (it’s more than that). The trailer didn’t run in local theaters, so few people likely knew the movie was even coming out. Given all that, the choice to release it into 75 theaters in North America — a relatively high number — is baffling.

On the other hand, the drama Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain performed very well in its debut on a single screen in New York, from which it earned $5,948. The film opens in Los Angeles on Friday and Chicago on November 28 before releasing in India on December 5.

The weekend’s other surprise came from the Hindi-Punjabi-English film Chaar Sahibzaade, an animated depiction of Sikh history. It earned $89,131 from just 15 theaters (none of them in the Chicago area), an average of $5,942 per screen.

In its third weekend, Happy New Year added another $361,148 from 106 theaters ($3,407 average), bringing its North American total to $3,559,926.

Source: Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama