Interview: Kal Penn & Ravi Kumar talk "Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain"

In Bhopal, India one night in December 1984, thousands of people lost their lives in what is considered the world's worst industrial disaster. The Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant exposed over 500,000 people to methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other chemicals because of negligence and deferred maintenance which caused water to back up into an MIC tank. Many documentaries have been made on the subject but director Ravi Kumar and actor Kal Penn have taken this story to the screen with the new film Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain which is a dramatic interpretation based on facts and eye witness accounts. Both Ravi and Kal were gracious enough to sit down with us here at The Movie Network and tell us about this new film which opened in New York on Nov. 7th and will be opening in Los Angeles on Nov. 14th.

Nick Leyland from The Movie Network: Hey guys. I apologize, in advance, for not knowing as much on this topic as I should, but your movie really opened my eyes to it.

Ravi Kumar: Actually, that is reason we made this film, for people who don't know about the subject. I'm talking about the people who are born after the disaster, who don't know about the subject. That was our prime audience. Perfect.

TMN: Now, were you terrified to make this film? It's an horrific event that took place. It's not a documentary. And you're the voice for these people.

Ravi Kumar: Yes, of course. It doesn't show on my face, but yes, we were terrified. For many reasons, one of them is, basically, we have moral responsibility of telling the truth about the subject, because there are still survivors suffering. There's no closure to the subject. And also, the survivor groups and NGOs who are advocating for the Bhopal disaster, they will be putting us under microscope of truth. And also, it's emotional engagement of the people still living in Bhopal. So, we were terrified. But, when you decide to do something, you don't turn back.

(Ravi Kumar on the set of Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain - Photo credit: Bernard Coughlan - © Bernard Coughlan)

TMN: Where did you get all your information?

Ravi Kumar: A lot of endless nights reading news... Reading archival material on Union Carbide's courtroom material, interviews of its survivors, victims, and people who were there that night, they were working in the Carbide factory, and a lot of posts, a lot of documentaries. There's been some excellent documentaries made on the subject in the last 30 years.

TMN: So, you were able to actually talk to some of the survivors, correct?

Ravi Kumar: Correct. Survivors, I mean who survived and definitely suffering, yes. And also the Carbide people who are still living there. For example, you saw the film, Mr. Roy, who is still living in Bhopal, he gave us lot of insight.

TMN: Now, Kal, first off, you had some amazing shirts in this film.

Kal Penn: Oh, I did. I wish I was wearing one now, but sadly not.

[laughter]

TMN: I hope you got to keep those shirts.

[chuckle]

Kal Penn: I have to say, after like, a month and a half or two months of wearing them, you're ready to retire them for a little while.

[chuckle]

TMN: Your character is based on a true life character, correct?

Kal Penn: Yeah. It's funny, actually, I haven't done that many interviews with Ravi together. So, he can clarify any of the things I say wrong. Motwani, is loosely based on a real journalist in Bhopal named Keswani. Keswani was reporting on both gossip, and the disaster in the '80s. He's still there as a reporter. I would say, it's probably what, about 30% based on him, and the rest was creative liberties, would you say?

Ravi Kumar: I think it's more than 30%.

Kal Penn: More? Okay.

Ravi Kumar: Yeah, yeah. Because all his headlines are true. And even shirts and the jewelry is true.

Kal Penn: Yeah, yeah. Okay.

Ravi Kumar: I met the guy. And yes. So, it's true for a lot of things and more than 30%.

Kal Penn: Okay, more than 30%. The point, in terms of actor prep and everything is... I like that it was fictionalized, in the sense that obviously in a 90-minute movie you can't do justice to a real human being's 50, 60 years on the planet. What really appealed to me was, he's the guy who starts out, of course, especially for Western audience, it's the shirts, it's his gregarious personality that you're struck by, of course, the absurd headlines. But as the story progresses, you realize, this is the guy that has huge trust issues. I mean, yes, he's a gossip columnist, but the one bit of real true investigative journalism that he does, he does with the help of a foreign journalist, Eva's character or the character of Eva, and nobody believes him in the town, because he's written so many salacious headlines, that's your classic, boy who cried wolf story. And I thought, it was also interesting that he needed not just an outsider, but a foreigner, in order to get access to a plant that was, literally, in his own backyard.

And so, going from the start of the film, where he's this boisterous guy, to the end of the film; where, I think, he's sort of a tragic character actually, nobody believes him, he's trying to warn all these townspeople, you realize he really does truly care for them, despite the fact that he is deeply opportunistic in selling these ridiculous newspapers. That's kind of a complexity, you don't often see, especially in a tragedy. And I give, I mean, I've told Ravi this from the day I read the script, that that's one of the things that really appealed to me about the character.

(Kal Penn in Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain - Photo Credit: Revolver Entertainment)

TMN: So, did you hesitate at all to take the role?

Kal Penn: No, I think the only hesitation frankly, was things like: You read a script, you... I knew about the story of Bhopal. You know, I was a little kid when it happened. So, I don't remember too much from the news, but I studied it a little bit in classes in college. My only hesitation was, actually, before I read the script, I was sitting there, thinking to myself, "Okay, is this gonna be a script or a story that's through the lens of, either totally demonizing the industrial world, or is it gonna be through the lens of totally demonizing government corruption in India, and lack of environmental rules?" I read the script and realized, it didn't demonize anybody. It was way smarter than that. It touched on all of the complexities that went into the real world events. Of course, they're fictionalized adaptation, in our case, but any hesitation I had, was really before I read the script.

And, after reading it I thought, "What a smartly written story, to not take sides in that way, but to really talk about the complexities." The reason I say that now, you know, we shot the film five years ago... After we shot the film, was when the BP oil spill happened, and of course, the same types of issues, right? Government corruption, lack of accountability on the industrial side. All of these things that go into why something like BP happened and why executives from BP went down to the Gulf and tried to get these Vietnamese-American fishermen, to sign these complicated legal documents, to absolve them of any wrongdoing. It just screamed of the types of things that happened 30 years before that in the middle of India. So, I think that really struck me after we shot the film, of course, but it's something that I've heard brought up countless times as we've been been promoting the film, from audiences who did not know about Bhopal, particularly Western audiences, who are really eager to see it, saying, "Wait a second, this is the same thing that just happened with BP, why does this stuff keep happening?"

And so you know, it's that combination of you wanna entertain an audience of course, but you want something to be relevant. It's sad that something is that timeless and relevant; I feel like we should've learned from those mistakes. But, if a little movie like this helps advance that conversation, I think that's a good thing.

Ravi Kumar: The reason for the film, as Kal said just now, the mechanism for all these industrial disasters, is almost familiar. Of cost cutting, exotic locations, lack of proper governance and some laziness or whatever you call it. And it's almost very familiar. We had a screening in Tokyo International Festival. And they were saying, it's almost like a template for Fukushima disaster. And America is saying it could be another brewing, some Bhopal, happening right now, and we don't know about it. So, I think, Bhopal is quite relevant right now. And somebody said to me, only couple of days ago, 30% of Americans actually live next to a chemical facility or plant. And we don't know that.

TMN: I was watching it, it really freaked me out because that can happen anywhere, really.

Ravi Kumar: Yeah I agree. It can happen, right now. We didn't make this film to blame someone. I think the most important thing is we should ask questions to the people accountable, and make them accountable. No one wakes up in the morning and says, "Okay, I'm gonna kill 10,000 people." It's just, we need to ask them question, "Are you doing the right thing?" We didn't do it in India because of colonial past. We thought, "All people coming, Caucasian American people coming in India, they're doing the right thing." We were quite subdued or were subservient. We should ask questions, and maybe it wouldn't have happened.

(Still from Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain - Photo Credit: Revolver Entertainment)

TMN: And you grew up near Bhopal, right?

Ravi Kumar: Correct, yes. A couple of hundred miles away.

TMN: And were you affected at all, by the tragedy in any way?

Ravi Kumar: No, I mean, as you know, all over the world, it's a sad story. That the people who suffer are mostly from the lower socio-economic status. People who suffered most are the people who actually grew up, or who were living around in temporary dwellings, what we call slums, in other words. And I lived a couple of hundred miles away. So, personally I wasn't affected.

TMN: How difficult did you find making a story where the audience already knew the outcome? They knew it  was a tragedy, it was this horrific event, everybody knew what was gonna happen. Was it had to be difficult to keep the audience in the story?

Kal Penn: I think, that's probably more of something that directors and editors worry about more than actors. I think, from that perspective, everything was clear in the script in terms of the character arc. I think, that the fact that, there's no resolution to both the real-life and the fictionalized cases, was a welcome thing because, in every other movie I've done there's been a clear resolution to the characters I've played. So, I sort of really, I don't wanna say "enjoyed" because that's the wrong phrase for a movie this tragic; but it appealed to me as an actor, that when Motwani disappears, literally disappears by riding his bike into the smoke, you don't know what happened to him. And afterwards, until that logline comes up at the end.

(Kal Penn in Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain - Photo Credit: Revolver Entertainment)

Ravi Kumar: I think the template for these films, like somebody actually compared A Prayer for Rain to Titanic. Although it's a completely different story and everything. I think, we all know, what happens in the end. But, we need to know, we want to know, what happens to people who we care about, and are emotionally engaged for the last one hour of the film. I think, that's where the filmmaking and film storytelling comes. We all know, what happens in Bhopal, but what happens to characters we have grown to like and love? What happens to them? That actually puts people in tears, in the cinema. Not because they know, but they know what happens to the characters they love.

TMN: Now Ravi, I spoke with a director recently who told me how difficult it can be to do large group shots. And I don't know if it gets much bigger than these crowds in India. How did you pull off filming in this town?

Ravi Kumar: I mean, basically, it's almost like mathematics. You create an army of soldiers and then the battalion, troops and commanders. It's like a scale of command and then you just mobilize the troops. It's almost like mathematics. But obviously you know, one character, one actor, an extra, he smiles at the camera and we have to do it again. So, it's very difficult and I won't recommend to a first time director, to make a film like Bhopal.

TMN: Okay, let me ask you, former CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, he passed away recently. He was responsible, or he was the CEO when the tragedy happened. Do you wish, he could've been able to see this film, and what do you think he would of thought of it?

Ravi Kumar: Yes. It's a good question. Mr. Martin Sheen and I, We tried to approach him on different levels, different channels. There was a radio silence from there. It was very interesting to see, because we didn't wanna demonize his character. We want to show his moral dilemma, because we don't grow up, "Okay, I'm gonna kill people." He wasn't doing the right thing, butfor me, personally, it's not that about what he did. What he didn't do after the disaster, saying sorry. Not doing the clean up, and everything. That was his fault, and that's why he's known in the history for.

(Martin Sheen as Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson - Photo Credit: Revolver Entertainment)

TMN: Thank you guys so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it and I enjoyed the film so much, and I hope I get to talk to you guys again in the future.

Kal Penn and Ravi Kumar: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.