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.