bhopal director

Cast members from “Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain,” including Kal Penn, promote the film in Mumbai Oct. 20. (Manav Manglani photo)

SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — Filmmaker Ravi Kumar was born in Bhopal, so the story of the Union Carbide chemical disaster on the night of Dec. 2, 1984 — to date, still the world’s largest chemical disaster — was a personal one for him.

Finally, his “Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain” has hit theaters, opening in New York Nov. 7 and in Los Angeles Nov. 14. The film stars Martin Sheen as Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson; Indian American star Kal Penn as a muckraking journalist; Rajpal Yadav as a rickshaw driver; and TV star Mischa Barton in a small role as a Western writer who was witness to the tragedy.

Kumar spent six years writing the film, and during his research spoke to Bhopal survivors, victim support groups and even Union Carbide staff members who had worked at the plant — in fact, his film paints both the Indian and American characters in shades of gray.

Raising money for the film was the biggest challenge, since many financiers in India felt the film wasn’t “Bollywood enough,” Kumar explained. But thanks to the help of Ravi Walia of Rising Star Entertainment, he was able to connect with the huge and influential entertainment conglomerate Sahara Movie Studios.

Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide in 2001, 17 years after the disaster, which has complicated the efforts of activists and justice seekers — although lawsuits against the corporate giant slowly drag on. On Nov. 12, representatives of Dow Chemical failed to appear in an Indian court for a hearing about their responsibility for the incident. Last week, around 100 survivors of the disaster staged a hunger strike and sit-in in New Delhi, carrying signs that read “Justice in Bhopal.”

“The reason for making this film is not to play the blame game, but learn from history so that another tragedy can be avoided,” Kumar said in a statement.

Kumar spoke to India-West about the film in an e-mail interview.

Q: Indian Americans and some activists in India have really cared about this topic, and they have not let it die despite the inexcusable length of time since the Bhopal tragedy. What message do you have for my Indian American readers, specifically?

A: This story has relevance for future generations. We made this film to inspire a healthy debate so we are more aware when we see another impending Bhopal happening around us. And of course this is our goal to help the survivors who are still waiting for justice. Our producers have set aside part of revenues from the film; and our partners, Amnesty International and Bhopal Medical Appeal, are raising awareness through “A Prayer for Rain.”

The Indian diaspora is crucial in influencing both India and America with their strong presence. They have a unique opportunity, and if I may say so, moral responsibility to make a change in Bhopal. We are relying heavily on our fellow Indians to support the film by sharing the excellent reviews. And we have audience reaction of anger and shock that is channeled into something more constructive, such as supporting Amnesty and Bhopal Medical Appeal, and making our world a better, safer place.

Q: Are you changing the ending to reflect Warren Anderson’s death on Sept. 29?

A: The death of Mr. Anderson does not change the fact that the survivors are still suffering and the Bhopal water table is contaminated. Union Carbide and Dow still exist, and they have the eventual responsibility of cleaning up Bhopal. We do not intend to change the ending.

Q: How was it for you convincing Indian investors and the Sahara organization to get on board? Did you have to persuade them to participate in such a controversial political topic?

A: We tried conventional route for financing and the story was not commercial enough for studios. The story had to appeal to someone who cares about social injustice and our planet. Sahara and Rising Star did not take much persuasion, as they responded to the issue and moral dilemma in the story and financed the film with little consideration for commercial aspect of the film. The film is doing well commercially, and helping Bhopal only proves that a corporate like Sahara can make a change through their resources.

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