Movie review: Finding the human in a big disaster

Social justice drama recreates the Bhopal industrial accident and shames those responsible

Review/Drama

BHOPAL: A PRAYER FOR RAIN (PG)/96 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****

The story: On the night of Dec 2, 1984, a gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, killed more than 3,000 residents of a nearby slum. This fictional recreation of the events that led to the worst industrial accident weaves real people (Carbide chief executive Warren Anderson, played by Martin Sheen) with fictional characters such as American journalist Eva Gascon (Mischa Barton) and factory worker Dilip (Rajpal Yadav). Kal Penn is muck-raking journalist Motwani.

It is one thing to make a docudrama about, say, human trafficking or modern-day slavery.

But a social-justice movie about a chemical factory employing hundreds, and how its mistakes affected a community containing thousands, must be produced on a different scale.

A film like that must be budgeted like a blockbuster disaster movie, or else fail in its mission to find the intimately human in an event too large too grasp emotionally. This film, on that score, does very well.

Everything looks the part, from the rusting hulk of a factory, hissing and leaking menacingly from deep within its tangle of pipes, to the wide shots of shanties, crowds and traffic. Production values are excellent in this British-Indian co-production.

Indian-born director and co-writer Ravi Kumar paces and structures the work in the Western movie tradition. The first and second acts lay out, by the numbers, the political and economic reasons that cause the disaster in the third act. His use of formula, however, does not diminish that sense of dread that builds as the story rushes towards the inevitable.

Ravi Kumar has an eye for the details of lower- class Indian life that transition well to the screen. The standard slum tourism clips - joyous weddings, shirtless urchins at play, thronged markets - mesh seamlessly with the personal story of Dilip (Rajpal), a father desperate to feed his family and pay for his sister's nuptials.

Actor Rajpal as the rickshaw puller-turned- factory worker offers a standout performance.

While he is clearly a cipher, a representative of the thousands who struck a safety-for-jobs Faustian pact with Union Carbide, the character he plays feels fully rounded and alive.

This film does not just side with the victims, it also names and shames the parties responsible for the disaster. On that count, it stands far above other similar historical disaster movies that tip-toe around accountability.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

The movie will be screened at Golden Village cinemas, check gv.com.sg for locations and tickets. Tickets for the premiere tomorrow at 7pm, at GV Grand, Great World City are $20. Attending are actor Kal Penn and actress Tannishtha Chatterjee, who plays Dilip's wife Leela, and two of the film's producers. They will do a question-and-answer session after the screening. The screenings are arranged by Darpan Singapore, organiser of regional Indian film festivals.