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Film Review: Bhopali

Film Review: Bhopali

May 16, 2011

A stirring documentary telling the story of the world's worst industrial disaster and the justice denied.



The film opens with shots of an enraged protest, a burning effigy, incessant chanting, and a noticeably vexed man who begins shouting at the camera, "December 3, 1984. The night we can never forget." Van Maximillian Carlson's feature documentary Bhopali takes us back - or, for some of us, introduces us - to what has become the world's worst industrial disaster. On a cold December night in 1984, the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal leaked 40 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate (M.I.C.) gas into the air, turning a bustling city into a living hell for its residents. The disaster claimed over 10,000 lives immediately and has affected hundreds of thousands since, mostly due to ongoing contamination of the water supply. Those at fault still haven't been brought to justice.

Carlson's film comes at an appropriate time as any. Finished soon after the 25th anniversary of the disaster, the film adds a much needed international voice to the plight of the victims. The film premiered (and won accolades) at Slamdance Film Festival this year, as well as screenings at festivals in Dallas, L.A., Philadelphia and most recently the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF). The film is simmering with anger and resentment on behalf of the victims but never does it resort to jingoism. It is rather a provocative film, weaving together historical retelling and official statements with heart-wrenching personal stories, leaving the viewer wondering how such a grave injustice can be allowed to go unchecked until today.

It becomes even more relevant now, with the Supreme Court rejecting a plea by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) when it asked for a retrial of the case. The judgement in 1996 diluted the charges against the accused, with a Bhopal court sentencing them in June 2010 to just 2 years in jail. They were then granted bail immediately.

The greatest tragedy of the Bhopal disaster, perhaps, is the fact that it is still ongoing. The gas has leaked into the ground water supply, the factory site remains unsanitized, and numerous children are born to this day with severe birth defects. Carlson highlights the story of Saiba Babu, an 18-month-old infant who was born in 2008 with debilitating birth defects. Her father struggles constantly to get her the help she needs from a hospital system that is ill equipped and that gives priority to those with financial means. "We are poor people, and we don’t have money, and that’s why no one looks after us, even if your child is dying," Saiba's father says helplessly.

It is difficult to make a film that encompasses all the complexities of a disaster of such a scale. Carlson, however, makes it about the survivors and the advocates, the people whose story should be told. He also admits to certain omissions. "There was a side story that I didn't include in the film," Carlson explains. "After the disaster, a lot of doctors came in from different countries. One of them was Dr. Klein from Germany, who began to treat the survivors, that inhaled gas that night, with something that was usually given to victims of cyanide poisoning. Nobody knew at the time what was in the gas that had leaked. And Union Carbide was not releasing, and still has not released, what was in their proprietary mix of M.I.C. gas. And Dr. Klein's drugs were actually helping people, which meant that cyanide was one of the components of the gas that had leaked. But that also meant that Union Carbide was lying. So they somehow convinced the Indian government to go against the doctor in order to stop the treatment. The treatment itself meant that the gas was a lot worse than they were admitting to."

Carlson also injects a sense of cautious optimism as he explores the movements and advocates still determinedly fighting for due justice. One such activist is Sanjay Verma. Just 6-months-old that fateful night, Sanjay was saved by his older sister Mumta, while his mother, father and five other siblings were killed by the gas. "The lucky ones are those that went together," explains Mumta in tears, "We who survived are the unlucky ones."

It's a disaster that Sanjay doesn't remember, yet one that has haunted him his entire life. Sanjay dedicates his life to helping his community, while joining the struggle to get appropriate justice for what he and countless like him have had to endure. Carlson also brings in the Chingari Trust, a rehabilitation center in Bhopal that treats the children who are born with physical and mental conditions caused by the contaminants of the gas leak. The stories of the children there, and their parents, are intimately told. Their stories are about dogged survival, especially when their own government turns away to their plight.

Besides a clip of a television interview in which a government minister rejects the claim that the water remains contaminated, Bhopali doesn't ever take an overtly political stance. Instead, it uses personal stories to present its case. Carlson lets the survivors punctuate the message and lets his camera show the continuing damage. Sanjay, who is also a guide of sorts in the film, becomes indignant at a point. He says with a sense of helpless frustration, "People say 'time heals.' In Bhopal, its only getting worse with time." That, essentially, is the point of the film, and Carlson makes it poignantly. The film deserves a watch and, even more so, the people who form its story deserve what they are due.

Watch the trailer for Bhopali here.

To learn more about the film and see what you can do to help, check out the official website for Bhopali. 

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