SEE MAHESH MATHAI’S CULT FILM ON DEMAND AT WWW.BHOPAL.FM
Bhopal Express has won awards and become a cult movie among students and on the art film circuit, but has not yet reached mainstream audiences. It’s artistically uncompromising, eschewing the dozen songs with dance routines that might have made it a Bollywood success (Zeenat Aman’s singing actually furthers the plot, a concept unknown to Bollywood), and refuses to pander to western audiences, making them listen to Hindi dialogue with English subtitles. Non-Hindi speakers will miss touches like the authentic and delightful Bhopali dialect spoken by Basheer (surely one of Naseeruddin Shah’s great performances) and his fellow auto-rickshaw wallahs, and the wonderfully inept verse couplets visited upon his friends by would-be poet Verma (Kay Kay).
The scenes depicting the actual disaster are so powerful that for a long time the film was not shown in Bhopal, for fear of reawakening those terrible memories. However it is to be screened publicly in the open air at the forthcoming anniversary.
This is a big movie that only a few have seen. It has not yet found a release in the US where it has only been seen mostly at private screenings. Yet in college campuses across America and Europe people are talking about this film and now you can see it for yourself, on our arts website, bhopal.fm.
See main article for Bhopal.FM review.
No ticket needed, but if you wish, you can make a donation to the Bhopal Medical Appeal.
BHOPAL.FM’S REVIEW OF BHOPAL EXPRESS
Bhopal Express is a charming and heartbreaking story of a romance set against the deep tragedy of the Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal in 1984.
Verma is a man much in love with his new wife, Tara. When she has to go back to her parents’ house for a visit, Verma begs time off the factory where he is a supervisor, in order to have a little more time with her. After seeing her off at the railway station, he is persuaded to spend the evening with his friend Basheer Miya, a wordly and witty auto-rickshaw driver who has more than a few barbs to throw at the chemical plant, owned by Union Carbide, where Verma works.
While the two of them are arguing away the evening at the Topaz Bar, enlivened by the ageing but still sultry courtesan Zohrabai, memorably portrayed by Zeenat Aman, the factory is about to change their lives forever. This is one of the most powerful scenes of the film. As Verma and Basheer banter the evening away, Zohrabai’s song, “Aaj ghar na jaana”, (Don’t you go home tonight) gains an unbearable poignancy, intercut with eerie shots of the darkened plant where the fatal errors born of greed and neglect are about to end the lives of thousands.
The scenes that follow are very terrible and for a long time the film was not shown in Bhopal for fear of reviving those unbearable memories. At the height of the disaster, with people falling dying in the streets, and the city as far as the railway station and the old market enveloped in the killing cloud, Verma finds a note tucked in his pocket by Tara, telling him that she will greet her parents and catch the next train back. She will be returning on the Bhopal Express.
Brothers Piyush and Prasoon Pandey have written a literate and intelligent script, full of fragments of poetry, appropriate homage to a Bhopal which, until turned into a gas chamber by Union Carbide, was known mainly as a city of exquisite manners and high culture. To this day shairis, or poetry recitals are as popular in Bhopal as movies. It contains many beautifully observed moments of life in the streets and homes of ordinary Indians, a realism not much seen in Indian cinema since the days of Satyajit Rai, and wonderfully evokes the atmosphere of an Indian city of twenty years ago. It could have been any city, but it was Bhopal.
Bhopal Express has won awards and become a cult movie among students and connoisseurs, but it has never achieved a wider release than the art circuit. This is because it does not compromise, eschewing the dozen songs with dance routines that might have made it a Bollywood success (Zeenat Aman’s singing actually furthers the plot, a concept unknown to Bollywood), yet refusing to pander to western audiences, making them listen to Hindi dialogue with English subtitles. Unfortunately this puts its subtleties out of reach to those who do not speak Hindi, who will miss touches like the authentic and delightful Bhopali dialect spoken by Basheer and his fellow auto-rickshaw drivers.
This is a big movie that only a few have seen. It has not yet found a release in the US where it has only been seen mostly at private screenings, Americans it seems being unwilling to see or hear anything that challenges their idea of themselves as champions of freedom, right and truth. Yet in college campuses across America and Europe people are talking about this film.
You can see it for yourself, right here and now. No ticket needed, but if you wish, you can make a donation to the Bhopal Medical Appeal.
We on the Bhopal websites of bhopal.fm, bhopal.org, bhopal.net and studentsforbhopal.org are indebted to Mahesh Mathai for giving us permission to screen his film, and wish to acknowledge the help and support of the UK’s Community Media Association, who digitised the movie and are exhibiting it as part of their media Showcase.
CMA SHOWCASE REVIEW OF BHOPAL EXPRESS
This award winning feature film is based on the true story of one of the largest industrial tragedies ever; often dubbed the “Hiroshima of Industrial Disasters”. The 1984 gas explosion at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal killed over 16,000 people, and seriously affected the lives of tens of thousands more, even over twenty years on.
The tragedy is revealed in this film through the experiences of newlyweds Verma (a foreman at the Union Carbide plant), his wife Tara, and their friend Bashir. The film acquaints us with their daily lives, their beliefs, rituals and entertainment, showing very little of the actual factory early in the film. Instead, Mahesh Matthai allows the film time and space to build in emotion and intensity before moving on to events leading up to the disaster and reliving crucial moments of the gas leak.
The night of the tragedy, poison gas clouds from the Union Carbide factory enveloped an arc of over 20 square kilometres killing over 8,000 people in its immediate aftermath and causing multi-systemic injuries to over 500,000 residents. In case the neighbourhood community be “unduly alarmed”, the siren in the factory had been switched off, adding to what would become an enduring disaster of immeasurable proportions.
The devastation left in the gas leak’s wake and the Union Carbide corporation’s refusal to accept responsibility are also depicted. The subject is sensitively handled, based on these real life events, making a powerful and gripping film from a first time director. The acting is strong and believable and the cinematography, by Matthai himself, is graceful and unobtrusive.
David Lynch lent his name to the presentation of this film, and is joined by Shankar, Ehsan and Lay having composed the music and some of the cast were reunited for the 2001 film “Monsoon Wedding”. The dialogue is in Hindi, with English subtitles throughout. Please note that there is some strong language and some scenes depicting the affects of the gas on people which children may find distressing. This film lasts 1 hour 38 and minutes.