BHOPAL: A PRAYER FOR RAIN | ©2014 Revolver

BHOPAL: A PRAYER FOR RAIN | ©2014 Revolver

Although a number of documentaries have been made on the subject, BHOPAL: A PRAYER FOR RAIN is the first scripted drama about the lead-up to and fallout from the explosion of the American-owned Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, a disaster that killed at least 10,000 people.

Director Ravi Kumar, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Brooks, and leading man Kal Penn, probably best known as the star of the HAROLD AND KUMAR comedy films, get on the phone together with Assignment X to discuss their work on BHOPAL.

ASSIGNMENT X: You’ve said that the book BHOPAL – LESSONS OF A GAS TRAGEDY by New York Times journalist Sanjoy Hazarika was what inspired you to make BHOPAL: A PRAYER FOR RAIN. How much did you know about the Bhopal disaster before reading that book?

RAVI KUMAR: I knew from what we grew up [hearing] from our parents and reading in the newspaper, which is not much, a very cursory veneer, a gloss of public newspapers. The research is much more complex about all these things that you see in the film. So after reading that book, I actually did a lot of research. Before that, I just knew the simple fact that so many people died and so many suffered and what happened.

KAL PENN: Ravi actually reached out to me almost five years ago and emailed me the script. And I had loosely known about the world events on which the script is based, but didn’t know anything in depth until I had the chance to [talk with] Ravi. I really responded to the script. I thought it was very smart, I thought it was incredibly complex, which is rare for a movie of this kind. It touched on everything from corporate greed to government corruption to environmental laws to human rights. And of course, very different from some of the other movies I’ve had a chance to do. I love doing these broad stoner comedies – I think they’re a lot of fun – I also love doing some smaller independent films, like THE NAMESAKE or this movie, and I really wanted to get involved in it after I got a chance to talk to the director.

AX: What would you say is the purpose of Matwani’s character? What does he provide for the audience and, Mr. Penn, for you as an actor?

KUMAR: I think I can answer the first part, and then Kal can answer the second. I think number one is, Matwani’s based on a real person, Mr. [Raj Kumar] Keswani, who still lives in Bhopal, and he did write those headlines, and he did have his own newspaper, the Daily Report. And he was awarded numerous awards because of his courage. It’s all true, what happens. So he belongs to the film and its story. Number two, we needed some sort of hero, and he’s our hero by default.

PENN: I would say that what appealed to me about the character was, there is this kind of strange complexity about him. When it starts out, you think he’s this larger than life, over the top sort of gossip columnist, and he is, but you realize over the course of the film that he also cares very deeply about this town. He’s caught in this situation where he’s printed so many absurd, salacious headlines just to sell papers that nobody in the town trusts him when he has his one piece of true investigative journalism and tries to warn them about this impending disaster. So I felt like the character went from this really gregarious, over the top guy to really a tragic figure who was caught between his own opportunism and his desire to tell the truth and care for people who he trusted. They didn’t trust him back. And, I have to say that given the fact there’s no traditional cinematic resolution to the character or to the story, all of that actually appealed to me, because it’s rare to have the chance to play a character like that.

AX: What is the real Raj Keswani’s health today?

KUMAR: He’s healthy. If you go back in the details of the disaster, the wind direction [meant that] only one part of Bhopal suffered, thankfully. A lot of people slept through the night in one part of Bhopal [that was not in the path of the toxic wind]. They didn’t suffer at all because of the wind direction. So he was fine. He knew that the wind direction was deadly, so he escaped.

AX: What is Bhopal itself like now environmentally?

KUMAR: When we shot the film, we took the camera and went to the tank that exploded and it still smells. That means the chemical is in the water tables and the water is still contaminated and people are still suffering.

AX: BHOPAL the film goes in depth into the economics of the situation. Do you think that the fact that BP and Exxon Valdez did settle for higher amounts of compensation for the victims had to do with the fact that they were in American waters rather than in India, and that the compensation got more favorable toward the dead and the injured because they were American?

KUMAR: It’s open to debate. I mean, the reason we made this film is to make a debate, rather than make a [blanket statement] upon them. I believe that Union Carbide, just because of corporate greed, wanted this court case to be held in India, because the value of life is much less, they believed, than American. So the answer is yes. Union Carbide – in [one] scene, they say the value of life is different in different countries.

AX: Dr. Kumar, you were a doctor before becoming a filmmaker?

KUMAR: That’s correct. I’m a trained pediatrician in London.

AX: There are a lot of medical scenes and the film deals to a great extent with the medical effects and the overwhelming situation for the few doctors on hand. Did your medical background help with some of the details in the film?

KUMAR: Absolutely. Actually, you can see my hands in the close shots of the injections, because actors don’t have these particular skills of being a doctor, so all the hands doing things, they are mine.

PENN: Interesting. I didn’t know that.

KUMAR: All injections breaking the skin, taking blood tests. On a broader subject, medicine is very important in this thing, because of the cyanide and everything, and I made sure, [having] a doctor background, that it’s all correct, about the doctors’ dilemma and very few doctors were on call that night, and all these medical facts are correct.

AX: To ask you a couple of lighter questions, how did you deal with the very bright, highly patterned Eighties fashions of the costumes?

PENN: [laughs] I loved them – at first. Those shirts are so fun to wear, but they’re really uncomfortable. It’s a hundred degrees outside in India and you’re wearing this polyester shirt. But it was a funny learning curve. I didn’t realize that that’s how he was going to dress until the wardrobe fitting once I was in India. And I remember being exasperated and jet-lagged and turning to Ravi the director and saying, “Is this like one of those ridiculous Bollywood movies? Why am I wearing this?” And then he explained to me that actually, historically, circa 1983, this journalist is from a particular community that was known for its really flashy shirts and it’s based on a real guy, and I thought, “Okay, all right, so there is a reason for wearing this.” I mean, same thing with the moustache. I enjoyed it for a month and a half, but then it was time to make it disappear.

KUMAR: Mr. Penn was stuck in a costume and wardrobe which he couldn’t get out of –

[PENN laughs]

KUMAR: He would just look at me helpless – “Okay, am I stuck in a really bad Bollywood film?” and I’m [happy] that he believed in this story and me.

AX: You did an Indian accent both for this and for the WORLD WAR Z: THE COMPLETE EDITION audio book. How easy or difficult is that accent for you?

PENN: I think it depends on the role. A lot of projects go to what, for lack of any real linguistic explanation, might be considered just a default Indian accent, which I understand. It sort of favors this general idea that someone is “other” or from a different part of the world. I think in the case of WORLD WAR Z but, more importantly, in the case of BHOPAL, there was a regional and time-oriented specificity to the accent, because you’re not just talking about an Indian accent, because it’s sort of like the United States – there’s no “American accent,” so to speak. There are so many regional modes of speech – Brooklyn very different from Mississippi – and that certainly is the case in any country you go to. India, a billion people, and all that diversity, I really liked the challenge of having to master an accent that was set in a very specific place in India at a very specific time, and thanks to our director, a lot of the Indian actors themselves and some dialect and linguistic coaches, a really cool challenge, actually. I enjoyed it. I’d love to have a chance to do something like that again.

AX: When they’re not speaking English, what specific language is being spoken in the film?

KUMAR: I think the spoken language is Hindi or Urdu, which is spoken the same. The script is different. Urdu is derived from the Arabic, which is a Semitic language, which is, they write from right to left. And the Hindi is a language where they write from left to right. So I think the script is different, but the spoken is the same, which is called broadly Hindi.

AX: Did either of you learn anything in researching this that affected your work on it?

PENN: I think there were a couple things. I think the most egregious is the fact that I didn’t realize that so much of my dialogue would be in Hindi. So the script was in English, all my conversations with Ravi were in English. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, so the four or five months of prep that I was doing before I left for India was all in L.A. in my apartment or with friends. I landed in India after this crazy wardrobe fitting, we started rehearsing, and I remember sitting on this couch, reading through the first scene, and Ravi was very patient, let me finish the scene, and then looked at me and said, “Great. Now do it in Hindi.” And I said, “What do you mean? I don’t speak Hindi. I speak English. And I speak Gujarati, I guess, which is another regional language in India, but I certainly don’t speak Hindi.” So I began this crash course of learning the lines in Hindi the week before we started shooting with this great dialogue coach and language coach. I was glad to have done the research I’d done before on all the historical specificity, because once I got there, it was really more about learning this language.

KUMAR: I had a lot of things, especially because it’s my first [feature] film and a director has to be some sort of de facto leader of the thing. People ask questions all the time. Most of them, you don’t know the answers. You just shut your mouth and nod sagely and hopefully it will work out. So [it was important to] believe in some sort of vision and a lot of things I learned from this film. I think I’m a better person, a much harder, more cynical person, afterwards on a personal level. On a bigger level, I learned so much how we react to the tragedy when it happens, when we’re recreating this drama in the last twenty minutes of the film, when actually this happens and you’re blinded and you’re running away from the gas, how to recreate, and we were quite touched by it. I learned so many things.

AX: What would you most like people to know about BHOPAL: A PRAYER FOR RAIN?

PENN: I would like them to know that I think it’s something that they would like watching. I mean, it’s [a] thoughtful film. It’s not your Thursday night comedy for sure, it’s set in 1983, but it’s incredibly timely with things like BP, things that are in the public psyche and all of these things are so hotly debated and contested in the political realm, whereas other countries around the world have already resolved things like, “Should we have oversight in industry?” And so for that reason alone, I think that as much as we detest watching cable news, and frankly, most people under forty don’t watch cable news, thankfully, I think a movie like this would appeal, regardless of their personal feelings on things like the environment.

We’ve done some audience screenings and Q and As in upstate New York and in New Jersey, and last night in particular, we met with a gentlemen who presumably skews to the right in a lot of his beliefs, and he was fascinated by the fact that the film didn’t take one particular stance. But he said, “Are you suggesting with this film that industry is bad and that we shouldn’t have things like pesticides and factories?” And we said, “Of course not. That’s not what the movie’s about at all.” But it sparked then an audience conversation about different people’s interpretations coming from the film. And I thought it was so fascinating that you could have folks walk away from the movie thinking, “Okay, this is a left-leaning movie,” other folks who say, “No, it’s a right-leaning movie.” The end result of that is advancing the conversation on these types of issues, which I think it a good thing. So grab a glass of wine before the film, come with some friends and have a really nice discussion afterwards. I’ve been really proud of the fact that that’s how audiences have been reacting to the film.

KUMAR: I’ve been traveling with this film for one and a half years at the film festivals, and people want to talk after watching the film. They don’t want to let it go for one hour, two hours. They just want to talk. They are angry, they are shocked, they go, “How did we not know?” and “I’m glad we watched the film.” Just people think that there’s something to be done. I think that’s the most important thing is to create a debate. And no one’s said that,” I wasted one and a half hours of my life.” They all come out, “Okay, I want to show this to my friends.” So in answer to your question, what I would say – I think as a filmmaker, I think it’s a gripping drama – as it says in the introduction, it’s an emotional story and you can learn something from this thing for the future.

Related:Movie Review: BHOPAL: A PRAYER FOR RAIN

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