“Bhopali” (Van Maximillian Carlson, USA, 89 mins)
“Bhopali” explores the full scale of the destruction caused in the small rural town of Bhopal, India after one of the world’s worst industrial accident.
On a quiet December night in 1984 as the residents of Bhopal slept, the nearby Union Carbide industrial plant, which produced a pesticide, started leaking poisonous MIC gases. The result was devastating – the death toll was in its thousands as the effects of the gas took its victims over the course of the next few weeks and months.
“Bhopali,” directed by newcomer Van Maximillian Carlson, reveals that tragedy is still claiming victims today, over 25 years after it occurred. Carlson used his own money to go to India and film this documentary, after becoming “emotionally invested” in the story, which he heard from a radio piece he was editing in 2008.
The hero of the documentary is 26-year-old Sanjay Verma, a survivor of the disaster and an activist for justice. Seven members of Verma’s family died on the night of the gas leak, one of the biggest losses to one family. Verma’s survival was down to the quick actions of his older sister Mamta, but while he and Mamta took refuge in a foster home, their older brother decided against it. After fighting a losing battle with his demons, Verma’s older brother took his own life, yet another tragic result of the gas leak.
“I believe this film tells the current situation of Bhopal,” says Verma. “Bhopal is not something that happened back in 1984. It is still happening.”
Verma is charismatic and is key factor in helping Carlson get his subjects to behave with ease to his silent voyeuristic presence. The young director makes sure to go into the heart of the homes he profiles, and we see the families in their daily toil to make a living and live with the disaster that still affects them.
As Verma’s sister, Mamta, talks of her struggle to survive after the disaster that tore her happy family apart, she breaks down. “Me and my sister do not talk about that night,” said Verma, his usual lively tone turning soft and melancholy for a moment.
What Carlson does so adequately is give the film’s subjects a dignity that they do not get in their society. India’s poor often go unheard and ignored, and through Carlson’s eyes, we start to see these people not as silent victims, but as honorable activists. Whether it is Salam Babu’s heart-breaking fight to find money for his baby daughter Saiba to get treated, or Rashida Bee’s constant devotion for the affected mothers and children who come to her Chingari Trust to get treatment and help, it is difficult to not be moved by the immense hope and kindness of these people.
The most frustrating part of the film is the lack of answers that India’s officials have when it comes to bringing justice for the Bhopal residents. The request is simple – to have Dow Chemicals, who now own Union Carbide, to clean up the disused plant and contaminated Bhopal land that continues to pollute. But Verma and Carlson are unable to get to the higher authorities, and that alone seems to plant a seed in most viewers that Bhopal still needs their help.
“A Bhopal-like event could occur somewhere else, and you cant just rely on the government, it’s not even the government’s responsibility to clean it up, it should be the corporation that causes it,” said Carlson. “The government would use tax money to clean it up, which would be really ironic that a population that has been devastated by tragedy ends up paying for it to be cleaned up.”
One silver-haired attendee at the screening remains under the radar, but his presence adds a weight to the support for the documentary. Martin Sheen, one of Hollywood’s A-list and well-known activists, found himself invested in the Bhopal disaster after playing Warren Anderson, former CEO of Union Carbide, in an upcoming film entitled “Bhopal: Prayer For Rain.”
“This documentary has footage of Anderson which I had never seen, I had only seen photographs,” said Sheen. “I wished I’d seen this before I played it.”
While Sheen was able to add weight to the cause in the US, one of the most pressing questions was the lack of India’s big names behind the cause. With Bollywood just around the corner from Bhopal, why were Bollywood’s influential stars not getting involved in the fight for justice?
“We have had Bollywood actors support the cause recently, like [Bollywood actor] Aamir Khan in 2006,” said Verma. “But they just show up for one day and then they’re gone.”
Bollywood’s lack of visible support stumps Sheen as well.
“I never thought of that,” said Sheen. “That would be interesting as they are beloved in their community.”
Carlson thinks that a big name can make a difference.
“I think that would be a great thing to happen, as if a Bollywood actor were to speak about it, it would bring attention to it immediately,” said Carlson. “The good thing about celebrities is that they can bring that sort of attention to the issue, and I would hope that more would step up, certainly from India itself.”
Sheen’s own support comes from a personal affection for India, but he seems unsure if his name alone will make a difference in the awareness of the documentary and the cause.
“I don’t have any access to people, I’ve always had an independent career, I didn’t make a lot of friends in the industry,” said Sheen. “I’ve been doing it for 50 years and I love it, but I didn’t cultivate those industry relationships.
Nevertheless, Sheen’s presence and support can only help Carlson as “Bhopali” travels the festival circuit. For Verma as he tours with “Bhopali” in the US, his goal is simple.
“Awareness and donations for our campaign is what I want, as we don’t take money from governments, so all our money is from individuals,” said the young activist.
As more people see “Bhopali” and as more big names join Sheen to support Carlson compelling film and Verma’s passionate fight, the residents of Bhopal can make sure that their call for justice is being heard.
“Bhopali” will be screening on May 3rd at the Newport Beach Festival, click here for tickets.
To find out more about the film and how to donate to the cause, visit BhopaliTheMovie.com.
Source: Neon Tommy