Bhopal Express

There are events in history that leave a fateful imprint seared on the mindsets of a generation. Some would argue that this is the function of history: to remind us of the fragile relationship we have with the world we live in. Every culture has catastrophic moments in its development that determine the course it takes. More often than not these days, such catastrophes are man made. Think of the consequences of Chernobyl on the European mindset and how close to annihilation a generation came. Yet, we move on when perhaps we shouldn't. More dangerously, we allow ourselves to go into an accomodating hand-wringing melancholy about the effects our actions have on our environment. It is somehow easier to think of disasters that threaten wildlife than it is to think of disasters that take human life on a massive scale. Bhopal and the consequences of the methyl isocyanate gas is one such instance. As time has gone on, we have not moved on. To our discredit, we have tried to move away.

Mahesh Mathai will not allow us to move away from the events of 1984 because we must not. For if we do, we will allow this to happen again and leave our children a legacy of doom built on the deaths of 6,000. For three nations that in their 50 years have already learnt the lessons of realpolitik, that humanity and their joint responsibilities to their populace to protect and ensure survival can be forgotten in the advancement of political power, this film should come as a timely reminder that humanity is a fragile thing that can be easily destroyed in a moment. Early on in the film, the seeds of calamity are sown as the leak starts and goes unnoticed by an errant maintenance team.

This film is intensely human despite its theme. It never loses sight of the fact that the victims of the tragedy were human. The central characters, portrayed with a mix of emotion and good heart by Kay Kay, Nethra Raghuraman and best of all by Zeenat Aman making a comeback after a protracted absence from the screen.

Kay Kay, a supervisor at Union Carbide and Nethra are newly wed and on the evening before the tragedy are separated as Nethra, a devoted Hindu goes to visit her mother. Given a night of freedom, Kay and his friend, played by Naseeruddin Shah, decide to visit Zeenat for a night of pleasure. This night lays down one of the central themes of the film: the consequences when you shirk responsibility for short term gratification. Also intrinsic to this is the theme of absence. The wife is absent as a controlling influence on her husband just as the maintenance team is absent and just as later there is an absence of humanity in both the literal and figurative sense.

Like an avenging force of fate, the triangle consisting of the newly weds and the mistress is torn apart as the gas leak deals out sudden death. The juxtaposition of the alcohol fuelled party and  the exit into a corpse-laden town is handled for maximum shock effect as first the flies drop and then people.

The film has a difficult task in that it also has to attack the coldness of Union Carbide officials faced with a situation they are unwilling to accept culpability for. It would be easy to demonise the officials. One could forgive Mathai if he had indeed done that. Instead, he manages to underline the coldheartedness of the business intent on preserving its good name and its profits while at the same time exposing the officials for the small men that they are and the attitude of exploitation that has long afflicted; what even we call the 'sub'-continent. The movie's truly chilling moment is when they give thanks that at least this happened in the Third World and not somewhere where human life is more valuable.

Films that set out to attack big business can sometimes fall flat on their faces, particularly where they are stentorian and resort to caricatures of their targets. Think of the Hudsucker Proxy and how its portrayal of business bordered so far on the comical that it was unable to make any headway in its attempt to satirise capitalism even when placed within a comical context. Curiously, the most effective films that go for the business jugular do so by understanding and exposing the business practices that can lead to the loss of life at the cost of preserving a bottom line. At no point in these successful films are you forced to judge the business on the basis that it is capitalist, but rather for its faults. In the case of Union Carbide, although it provided employment for a town in need of it, it also lost sight of the fact that it had a responsibility to its employees, their families and the victims of its sloppiness.

If this film inspires sadness, then that is good, for it should. If it inspires thought, then that is good, for it should. If it inspires anger then that is good. If it inspires complacency and regret, then that is insufficient. It is to the film's credit that at no point do you ever feel anything other than the strongest of emotions and a depth of feeling for the protagonists.

Copyright 2000
Last modified: December 18, 1999

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