Released in advance of the 30th anniversary of the 1984 toxic pesticide leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India that killed thousands of people in matter of a few hours, Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain follows the lives of the unsuspecting townsfolk and profit-minded corporate officials as catastrophic mistakes lead up to the worst chemical disaster to date.
When filmmakers decide to confront a multi-national corporation for their part in such a disastrous event, they not only have to consider the challenges of filming, but a possible challenge in court. According to director Ravi Kumar, there was no response from Union Carbide when they were approached before the film was made, or as Kumar put it, “a radio silence, so to speak.” Nevertheless, before releasing the movie the filmmakers were advised to make sure nothing in the film would open them, their investors or the distributor up to litigation.
“We spent almost six months doing what we call ‘errors and omissions’ policy so in case this big corporation comes against us, we are covered. We made a little change in the film and then we found the right insurance, so we would not be in trouble,” explained Kumar. Although a couple of fictional characters were added to the story to personalize the drama and provide the audience with people they could care about, Kumar stated, “The facts we used were in public domain. We didn’t invent any facts.”
As an Indian, Kumar was acutely award of the tragic incident, but when he read a book by a New York Times journalist on the subject, he saw the filmic potential for the story. “The first couple of pages was almost like a thriller,” said Kumar. “That’s when I thought this might be a story for a main-stream audience.” Kumar credits his co-writer, actor David Brooks, who plays Shane in the film, with bringing nuance and subtle details to the script. “That script was powerful enough for Martin Sheen to commit,” shared Kumar. “That was a turning point in the filmmaking. That’s how we got the finance. He has been an amazing driving force.”
To bring the film to the screen, Kumar worked with L.A.-based German cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann. Coming out of the London Film School, Wuppermann had worked primarily on short films. Bhopal was his first feature. Because of location logistics, Indian gaffer, Anil Chandel, who also works as a cinematographer, shot when Wuppermann was unavailable. Kumar explained, “They both think similarly. They believe in practical lighting. They don’t believe in over lighting like Hollywood or Bollywood. They believe in natural, keeping it to the truth.”
The film was shot in 35mm using very sensitive stock. Wuppermann assured Kumar that they would be able to capture the images in low light. “At night time we could see the factory, but with the naked eye, I could hardly see it,” revealed Kumar who added that they finished with a digital intermediate. Although the factory shut down after the accident, “the building still looms over Bhopal like a ghost ship,” continued Kumar. “We took the camera near the tank that exploded that night and it still smells after 30 years. We saw discarded shoes, helmets, goggles. It’s an unsettling experience when you go inside.”
For authentic interior shots, the filmmakers did a lot of research on the structure and functioning of the facility and found a factory in a different town that had a similar design to the Carbide plant. “It would have been very difficult to make a set of this chemical plant. It would not have looked the same,” explained Kumar.
The Indian-born director is London-based, so this film was his first time working in India, as well as his first collaboration with production designer Sukant Panigrahy, who does a lot of Bollywood films. Kumar stresses that this film is not a Bollywood film. “We tried to make a balanced film for the international audience without any song and dance. If I, or someone else, would have made the film for an Indian audience, it would have been more partial to the Indians, more melodramatic, more black and white,” said Kumar.
Much has changed since the 1980s, including the town itself, so the crew was careful to re-create the period. Buttons on the company uniform and even shoelaces were original to the eighties. Older cars were used not only for the production design, but the horns and engine noise were recorded for the soundtrack. “The whole landscape of India has changed. It took a lot of research to re-create the ’80s,” said Kumar. “In India, every five years, the landscape, everything changes. It was a challenging task.”
“Chris Gill is amazing. He is our mentor,” said Kumar. “He is a very senior editor, one of the top editors in the U.K. He has done an amazing film, 28 Days Later. He is Danny Boyle’s editor.” Maria Valente, who was on her first big film, cut the rough assembly. She doubled as postproduction supervisor. Gill joined the crew in a break between larger films. “Because of him the film is what it is,” continued Kumar. “I’m a first time director so we shot a lot and he brought it into some kind of coherent structure of 95 minutes.”
According to Kumar, the film changed a lot in the edit. If the filmmakers had stuck with the screenplay, the narrative would have remained linear, but because of the expectations of contemporary audiences, they wanted to tell the story in a more interesting way. After principal photography the filmmakers picked up additional footage in California, shooting a scene set in the Union Carbide boardroom with company chairman and CEO Warren Anderson (Sheen) as he finds out about the accident. Inserted between flash backs telling the interwoven stories of the characters impacted by the tragedy, the boardroom worked as a narrative spine for the structure of the edit.
After a couple of composers did not work out because of a change in the direction of the music, composer Benjamin Wallfisch came on board the production with very short notice. At only 34 years of age, he had already composed additional music for 12 Years a Slave and worked as conductor and orchestrator on a number of high profile projects including Anna Karenina.
“He brought all the emotion,” credited Kumar. “It was his idea to use a conventional score rather than go for Indian music. When audiences hear the music they have an emotional response. If they hear some music from India that is not conventional, they could be subconsciously confused at how to respond. It is not an exact science.”
Of the $6 million budget, a lot of the money went into post including visual effects, both practical and digital. “The shot of the Carbide factory overhead is a miniature,” Kumar explained. “Bray Studio makes miniatures. That’s where they used to make Hammer horror. They do an amazing job on big Hollywood films.”
The Carbide factory no longer exists as it did 30 ago, so it took model and miniatures supervisor Leigh Took and his team three months to re-create not only the chemical plant, but also the whole landscape surrounding the facility. “We could not replicate this in digital format,” added Kumar. Prime Focus provided visual effects.
Sound played a big part in creating the atmosphere of the film, especially in the climax sequence where people are dying from the poisonous gas. “We had literally 500 tracks of sound, of gurgling, wheezing. We recorded real wheezing from asthmatic people,” said Kumar. In addition to creating the soundscape of the ’80s with different car and rickshaw horns, the sound team also gave the factory itself a subtle, droning sound.
Sound re-recording mixer/sound supervisor Richard Lewis and sound designer/sound re-recording mixer Seven Parker headed up the sound crew. “They are great artisans and they don’t get noticed that much. They are storytellers from the sound point of view,” commented Kumar. “I get the credit as the director that it’s a great looking film, but actually, it is a great sounding film. I can talk for hours about the sound. It is often overlooked. The sound is as important as the picture, but more subtle. If any young filmmaker is listening to this, concentrate on your sound.”
The crew was generally very young with an average of around 21 years. Many were first-timers in their positions, such as first assistant director, Anil Jain. “My second A.D. was 19 or 20 and she got into London Film School after finishing the film,” said Kumar. Some of the crew came from London and were friends.
As Kumar put it, “It is not a conventional big budget film. We just chipped in as a family. A lot of my friends got involved, a lot of young filmmakers. We got lucky with a few things. We got lucky with the music. We got lucky with the editor, Chris Gill. And we got very lucky with Charlie Wuppermann.”