Nightmare in Bhopal

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India has largely forgotten Bhopal. The site of the world's worst industrial disaster has slipped back into the obscurity from which it was wrenched one terrible December night just over 15 years ago. So when his producer suggested to Mahesh Mathai that the Bhopal incident be the subject of his first feature film, the 40-year-old Bombay director of television commercials was at a loss. I knew it was something that happened in 1984, Mathai says, but the details were all forgotten. Then he visited Bhopal and spoke with activists and survivors. The injustice shocked me, he says. Even after all these years, the details can turn stomachs. On the night of Dec. 2, 1984, tons of methyl isocyanate gas, used by the Indian affiliate of chemical giant Union Carbide to make pesticide, leaked from a large tank and wafted over the sleeping ghettos around the factory. People woke gasping for breath and choking on their own body fluids. An estimated 7,000 of Bhopal's 800,000 residents died within days, and more than 500,000 were affected. Many survivors remain ill and disabled. Even now, 10 to 15 people perish from poison-related diseases every month; the deaths no longer make the newspapers.
For Mathai, the shock of rediscovery was followed by resolve. I decided this was a film that should be made, he says. Although at least four documentaries have told the Bhopal story, they are rarely seen in India. So Mathai decided to make a mainstream feature, using a fictional couple to anchor his narrative. Bhopal Express, released last month to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the accident, is a 90-minute tale of newlyweds Tara and her husband Babulal, who is a loyal employee at the chemical factory. On the fatal evening, he puts his bride on a train to visit her parents and goes off drinking with his buddy Bashir. When they lurch out of the bar late at night, they find panic-stricken people running from the shanties near the factory. Corpses litter the street, and people are screaming in terror about a gas leak. At the crowded hospital, doctors desperately beg for an antidote, but company officials demur. It's like tear gas, they say. Just wash your face with water.

Babulal races to the factory to ask his bosses for the antidote and is shocked at their indifference. Relieved that the direction of the wind carried the gas away from them to the slums, they fret about the angry mob outside the factory gates. A despondent Babulal opens his wallet to seek solace from his wife's photograph and finds a note. She had planned a surprise and was returning that same morning. Babulal is hysterical: the station is full of poisonous gas. He races off to stop the train.

Bhopal Express puts the blame for the disaster squarely on the company, though Mathai has changed names and used the standard this is a work of fiction disclaimer. The film depicts a meeting of spin doctors at the company's U.S. headquarters, where executives are trying to find a scapegoat for the disaster. The saving grace, says one official, is that this happened in a Third World country. Here, a life would cost $25,000. There, it's worth $250.

As it turned out, India's Supreme Court ordered the company to pay only $470 million in damages. The Indian government, which received the money, has not yet distributed it all. The state-of-the-art hospital funded by Union Carbide has yet to open. The firm, which last year had revenues of $5.6 billion, has sold its interest in the Bhopal plant, which is now closed. Though Mathai's film deals only with the night of the leak, a voice-over at the end calls for justice.

The film makes a powerful statement even as it tries to engage a mainstream audience uninterested in sermons. But it suffers from some inept acting and a script that has trouble blending fiction with facts that are dramatic in themselves. The movie's strength is its documentation of the disaster--the helplessness, suffering and desperation. Veteran Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah excels as drinking buddy Bashir, an ex-Union Carbide employee with doubts about safety. I am scared because the chain that ties down that tiger is rusted, he warns early on.

Bhopal Express will be shown at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is scheduled for international release after that. Mathai hopes the film will force the world--and Indians--to remember a ghastly tragedy and appeal for better compensation. Sometimes you have to make a choice, he says. If you see injustice in front of you, are you going to walk away? If you can do something but still walk away, that is trouble.