As if a film about the 1984 Bhopal disaster—wherein a pesticide plant in India, owned by Union Carbide, leaked enough gas to infect over 500,000 people, killing nearly 10,000—didn’t scream “box office” from the get-go, Ravi Kumar’s Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain is finally getting a cursory, miniscule theatrical release. Filmed five years ago to the protests of Indian NGOs, the film deserves as wide a platform as its supposedly political Indiewood contemporaries, but its Achilles’ heel is its confusion of recreation with consciousness. Expensively mounted in the vein of a Syriana or Traffic, A Prayer for Rain instead places its characters in a reflexive historical continuum that dooms them to be mere demonstrative types from start to finish, whether it’s Kal Penn’s muckraking journalist Motwani—made a hero, curiously, for approximately a third of the film’s running time—or Martin Sheen’s leading turn as Warren Anderson, the Union Carbide CEO who would flee legal prosecution in India following the disaster.
Kumar and Brooks manage to sketch a few knottier sociopolitical crevices into the film’s dialogue than you’d expect—but not by much. When a backpacking fashion journalist (Mischa Barton, making a two-scene cameo as the face of Western humanitarianism) hitches a ride in Edwards’s motorcade, she turns inexplicably intrepid, challenging him for “choking” Bhopal. Edwards replies, “We’re not making perfume here, but this factory feeds this town.” The point isn’t that the filmmakers agree with Edwards, but that Sheen is giving him the full range of corporatist fat-cat self-justifications—and his Edwards looks like he really believes every one. Ideas are allowed to lock horns in discussions about the plant’s safety, but the scenes play longer than the scoring of strict ideological points normally requires; Edwards’s insistence on the orderliness of capitalism makes him more ignorant than malevolent. The dialogue is worse than leaden: It sinks character plausibility even within good performances, compounded by the screenplay’s curious overall slouch toward even-handedness.
This means that, blame-wise, A Prayer for Rain actually comes down harder on the myriad Indian factory workers it shows ignoring safety protocols, egged on by a bearish foreman who—because we never see him at home with a wife and children, or hear him wax philosophical about the benevolence of money—is the closest the film gets to a downright villain. Money is the sole motivating factor for most of the doomed Indian side characters, whose demonstrable poverty is given a glistening cinematic sheen, paired with Benjamin Wallfisch’s stirring strings and treacly piano music. If the filmmaking is rigidly conventional to the point of mawkishness (including during the pivotal gas-leak sequence), it’s more traditionalist than exploitative, and the film doesn’t lowball the seriousness of its subject matter. It’s a tragedy accorded the gravity of a Hollywood thriller, but it indicts a chain of events—a system—rather than Union Carbide itself. This speaks to the A Prayer for Rain’s fundamental, disappointing handicap: It builds to an emotionally tortured finish, but also renders it systematically unavoidable.