Movie accused of glossing over role of US company in Indian toxic gas disaster
A film starring top Hollywood actors that dramatises the Bhopal gas disaster has been criticised by campaigners and participants in the tragedy for misrepresenting individuals and the facts.
Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain is due for release this autumn with Mischa Barton and Martin Sheen in leading roles.
Shot largely in India, it portrays the events around the world’s worst industrial accident, in which clouds of toxic gas escaped from a chemical plant run by a part-owned subsidiary of American company Union Carbide.
More than 8,000 people, mainly living in slums around the plant, died immediately when the gas leaked shortly after midnight on 3 December 1984. At least 25,000 others are estimated to have died over subsequent years and many more continue to suffer today.
Ravi Kumar, the writer and director, said the film was “a dramatisation, inspired by real events.
“There are 18- and 19-year-olds across India and across the world who have never heard of Bhopal. I could have made a four-hour documentary that no one would have seen.
“This way a whole new generation will learn about what happened and a whole series of very important and relevant questions can be discussed,” said Kumar, a London-based paediatrician who has raised more than $5m from Indian private backers for the project.
Sheen plays Warren Anderson, the chief executive of Union Carbide, headquartered in Danbury, Connecticut. Barton plays Eva Gascon, a fictitious reporter from Paris-Match who learns of the problems at the plant from a local journalist but decides not to publish a story.
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The film ends with an imagined present-day meeting between Anderson and Gascon in the former’s country club in America. The journalist is racked with remorse. Anderson is unrepentant.
Earlier versions of the script, obtained by the Guardian and Bhopal campaigners, have angered many.
“There is not a single Bhopali with upright moral standards in the script. Of course the people of the city are going to be angry. They are made to look comic, corrupt or passive victims,” said Satinath Sarangi, managing trustee of the Sambhavna Clinic which helps the estimated 150,000 suffering health problems due to the disaster.
Raj Kumar Keswani, editor of a local newspaper in Bophal, who wrote a series of articles before the disaster outlining the danger posed by the plant, said reading the script had been “very painful”.
Keswani, portrayed in the film as a foul-mouthed buffoon, said: “My sincerity, integrity and commitment has been distorted and trivialised [and] other characters of Bhopal have not been treated fairly.” Kumar said he tried to contact Keswani before filming but had been rebuffed. The journalist said no such attempts had been made and that he was “always accessible”.
The film is also likely to reopen debate over who was responsible for the disaster. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), now owned by Dow Chemical Company, has always claimed that its Indian subsidiary Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), 49% of which was owned by local Indian investors, was solely responsible for the operation of the plant and that the accident was the result of sabotage by an employee who has subsequently been identified.
Union Carbide denies any safety issues at the plant before the leak.
Kumar, who was born in Bhopal, said that the sabotage theory had been “totally discounted”. His film instead shows an ill-equipped and poorly-trained Indian workforce struggling to work with badly maintained equipment.
Tim Edwards, of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, said that despite serious flaws the film’s script was “not all bad.
“It depicts the cost-cutting regime imposed by the parent UCC on subsidiary UCIL pretty well. There is also substance to the depiction of local management culpability. Overall, [the film] does make [Union] Carbide look like white-man’s-burden colonialists who put big dreams and profits before practical worker health and community safety,” he said.
However, Edwards said that the film “glossed over the degree of control and responsibility of US officials” and failed to portray strenuous efforts made by representatives of the workforce to get improvements on safety, particularly after a series of accidents and the death of at least one worker at the plant in the years before the accident.
Kumar said that Sheen had “sharpened” the character of Anderson, who is still alive, to make the message of the film “more black and white.
“Marty wanted him to be less ambivalent than in the original script.
“Now [Anderson] basically blames everything on the Indians and walks away,” Kumar said.The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal was set up on an unpopulated site on the outskirts of the city in 1969 to manufacture pesticides for use in India’s push to improve agricultural productivity. The city grew to envelop the plant, which started manufacturing the volatile chemical Methyl isocyanate, which forms toxic gas on contact with water, in 1979. Much of the action of the film takes place in the shantytowns which had grown up around the plant where most of the victims lived.
Hazra Bee, a resident of Bhopal whose grandchildren suffer serious birth-defects said that enough films had been made on the events leading up to the tragedy. The most important thing now was to highlight the ongoing consequences of the disaster, she said.