Prayers Falling on Deaf Ears

Thomas Crowley tries to investigate the media representation of the Bhopal tragedy including the most recent film Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain and tries to find out how such narratives can help us question the underlying structures involved….

How to make sense of the world’s biggest industrial disaster? Thousands dead, thousands still suffering from the health effects, gross negligence on the part of both government and industry, and offenders getting away scot-free, with hardly a slap on the wrist. How to come to terms with suffering, death and injustice on such a scale? And, how to draw out the lessons of Bhopal in a way that has a strong emotional impact and also uncovers the larger structures at the root of the disaster?

Much has been written about the Bhopal disaster, but it has been relatively unexplored in the world of film. There have been small documentary films made by advocates and activists, and Bhopal Express as a sole representative from Bollywood, but the issue has been relatively ignored by mainstream cinema, just as the continuing struggle of survivors gets only the occasional mention in mainstream media.

But there are reasons to think that the medium of film, with its narrative potential and its visual possibilities, could go some way in exposing both the horror of the disaster and the criminal negligence of the governmental and corporate forces behind the tragedy. This thought was in my mind when I watched Bhopal: a Prayer for Rain, the biggest production till date to tackle the Bhopal disaster. Directed by Ravi Kumar, who also co-wrote the script, the film is an odd Hollywood/Bollywood, English/Hindi hybrid. It includes some big Hollywood names (Martin Sheen by far the brightest of the stars, with supporting roles for Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar fame, and Mischa Barton, of The O.C.  fame) as well as lesser-known Bollywood actors.

The film, for the most part, approaches the big picture through small human-interest stories: the scrappy local journalist, the skeptical doctor, the harried safety inspector, and most of all, the hard-working rickshaw puller turned Union Carbide employee Dilip, played by Rajpal Yadav. The approach of zooming in on individual narratives is hardly unique to this film; in fact, it may be the main approach used not just by films, but also by narrative non-fiction writing, photography and other media to tell big real-life stories.

Behind this approach is the assumption that people will relate more to an individual’s struggles than to an explanation of pernicious structures. And research backs this up. One oft-cited study concludes that people are much more likely to give donations to causes if they hear the story of an individual victim, rather than facts about the many thousands affected. As the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof says, “One death is a tragedy, and a million deaths are a statistic.”

Kristof would know. He has made a living from using such an individual-centered approach in his popular columns, trying to raise awareness and funds for various causes, most of which involve atrocities in the global South. But besides the many other problems with Kristof’s columns (his “white savior” attitude, his conscious or unconscious role as the “soft side of imperialism”), Kristof serves as a cautionary tale for over-reliance on individual narratives. People have realised that there’s a market for pathos-evoking tales, and they’ll tell them to Kristof, whether they are true or not. So Greg Mortenson, famous for his supposed humanitarian work in Afghanistan, gets Kristof’s influential backing, then turns out to be a fraud. Same with Somaly Mam, an activist fighting sex trafficking in Cambodia.

This kind of thing happens again and again in our narrative-hungry media. The forest is constantly missed for the trees. In the United States, there was a recent mini-scandal in the reporting world when a major story by Rolling Stone about a gruesome rape turned out to be, in all likelihood, fabricated. As one commentator noted, the crux of the matter was the journalist’s “heavy-handed reliance on the narrative of one specific crime for the entirety of her argument… which is the problem underlying all her other mistakes.” Further, the journalist “was not only careless, but sloppy in a very predictable way: she needed to critique a system, and chose to do it by way of an individual case.”

Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain avoids these pitfalls to some extent, since it purposefully creates a range of fictional and composite characters to dramatise the Bhopal disaster. And unlike Kristof’s columns and the Rolling Stone piece, the film does not shy away from the larger structural forces involved: global geopolitics, Cold War rivalry, governmental support of corporate malfeasance, and neo-imperial economic strategies, just to name a few. There is a genuine attempt to wed moving individual narratives to large-scale issues.

The problem with the film is that, with all its intersecting storylines, none of the characters feel fully realised (unlike in the well-crafted Bhopal Express). This may relate to the film’s reliance on big-name Hollywood actors. The logic seems to be: well, we have these stars, let’s shoehorn them into the narrative somehow. Mischa Barton drops in, is flippant, has a sudden change of heart, lands a big interview, and leaves, her motivations unclear throughout. There are long scenes meant to humanize and complicate Martin Sheen’s portrayal of Warren Anderson, and although the film does a good job showing the hollowness of Anderson’s “American dream” rhetoric, in the end, the character lacks coherence; he is surely arrogant and negligent, but the film can’t seem to decide just how much of a villain to make him.

It’s a bit jarring to see Kal Penn take up a desi accent, but he does his best to provide a moral center for the film. His intrepid reporter provides some of the film’s most convincing moments. Rajpal Yadav, as the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, gives a strong performance, but his character too is painted in broad strokes, with few discernible characteristics except his indebtedness.

Thirty years after the disaster, it’s clear how big a villain Warren Anderson is. The film, at the end, points out that he is still a fugitive from justice, but it’s hard to feel the full impact of this truth, given the film’s uneven nature. The film has taken aim at the right target, but it has failed to hit the mark.

Credits for the Featured image: Raghu Rai.

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