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The release of Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain commemorates the 30th anniversary of the deadly gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in India. Estimates of the number of deaths on that December night vary widely, from 5,200 (reported Union Carbide’s website) to 10,000 (claimed in Bhopal’s studio synopsis), and the toxins that were emitted still affect Bhopal residents today. The company has denied negligence, blaming the incident instead on worker sabotage.
There. Now you don’t have to see the movie.
With its foregone conclusion and a weak effort to Titanic-ize the story by director Ravi Kumar (who co-scripted the film with David Brooks), Bhopal ensures that plenty of hearts—and watch-checkers—will go on.
Really, Kumar could have achieved the same effect with a three-act diorama. Characters are just archetypes: the ass-protecting CEO (Martin Sheen), the impoverished, proud new employee (Rajpal Yadav), the intrepid journalists (Kal Penn and Mischa Barton, but more on them later). The film even has the token retiree: “I’m leaving Bhopal tomorrow morning!” he says. Or are you?
If you’re having trouble remembering the company behind the disaster, don’t worry: There are shots of the factory’s logo every few scenes. And if you really want a plot summary: Dilip (Yadav) is an already-poor rickshaw driver who’s further screwed when an obese passenger breaks his wheel. (Har har!) Because Dilip can lift a sack of stuff, he’s hired by the plant. Whether Dilip truly believes that the white powder he comes home covered in is flour is uncertain. His concerned wife (Tannishtha Chatterjee, also the concerned wife in this year’s Siddarth) literally and figuratively brushes it off when she sees the cash in Dilip’s hand. Now they can pay for his sister’s wedding!
Meanwhile, CEO Warren Anderson (Sheen) squints at reports and looks agitated, at least when he’s not glad-handing his happy underlings in India. Publisher Motwani (Penn) and the fake-credentialed Eva (Barton) also spend their brief screentimes looking grave; she a little more so, because Barton delivers her lines as if reading a grocery list.
As the film checks off its pre-calamity boxes, a few weaknesses are forehead-slappingly obvious: Female characters are reduced to furious wife, irritated wife, and melancholic wife-to-be. (Oh, and Barton, the justice-seeking American.) The Jersey-born Penn, of Harold & Kumar and Obama aide fame, should never, ever tackle an Indian accent despite his ancestry. And this is just a guess, but I’m thinking that an Indian supervisor of a Bhopal factory wouldn’t switch to English (which is randomly subtitled) whenever he’s making an important point to his employees.
Because Bhopal’s plot has zero zag, it offers zero emotion, at least until its distressing final shots. But inarguably, an industrial tragedy on the scale of Bhopal’s is a worthy story to unearth as a cautionary reminder, especially considering that corporate negligence and environmental apathy are still, and will likely continue to be, rampant. At one point in Bhopal, a clueless boss tells his crew, “As long as we are learning from our mistakes, we are safe.” Thirty years later, the world isn’t safe yet.
The film opens Nov. 28 at Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market.