MUSIC TO MY EARS 'Bhopal Express':
Try To Catch The Wind
from the Billboard online site

No matter how softly it blows, the wind is always cruel, since it touches everything but feels nothing. On the night of Dec. 2, 1984, in a working-class precinct of Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh in India, evil came as casually as a sigh; the Angel of Death exhaled and created the worst industrial disaster in history.

Due to corroded pipes and valves monitored by an understaffed safety crew, 40 tons of lethal gas began leaking from overloaded storage tanks at the aged Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal. A refrigeration unit that could have deterred or prevented the massive leak had been closed down as an economizing measure, and the factory's manual alarm for personnel had been shut off. The leak was first discovered by management circa 11 p.m., but it wasn't until 12:50 a.m. that a frightened worker succeeded in switching on the alarm. Management silenced that sole alarm within minutes and delayed sounding the plant's public siren until 2 a.m. The poisonous vapors escaping in the intervening hours soon killed an estimated 8,000 people,
many of whom fell dead shortly after being exposed to the toxic emissions. Some 16,000 people have perished thus far from the effects of the erratic airborne currents of methyl isocyanate (MIC), hydrogen cyanide, and other chemicals, and 500,000 more citizens were maimed by the noxious breezes in what would later be described as a chemical Hiroshima.

"I knew as little about the subject as anybody else," says Mahesh Mathai, an award-winning director of Indian commercials (Cadbury's Dairy Milk, Eveready batteries) and music videos (clips for Indian artists like Lucky Ali have earned honors at the Channel V Music Awards). Mathai traveled to Bhopal at the suggestion of producer Deepak Nayar ("Heat And Dust," "The
Million Dollar Hotel") in April 1998 to research what would become his first feature film. "That visit actually changed my life," says Mathai-who later realized Union Carbide made the Eveready batteries for which he'd shot TV advertisements-"because I saw people were [still] dying, were helpless, didn't have a voice. For me, it became partly a film and partly a mission. I had to tell their story. I couldn't walk away."

The results are "Bhopal Express" (Highlight Films/Kintop Pictures/Alive Entertainment), a spare, affecting movie that interlaces fiction and fact to chronicle the plight of two local newlyweds whose young lives are forever altered by the tragedy, plus an accompanying soundtrack on Sony Music India, produced by the noted ambient/pop production team of Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, and Loy Mendonsa. The score features hypnotic tracks by Indi-pop stars Lucky Ali ("Tu Kaun Hai" [Who Are You]) and Sagarika ("Hum Kya Log Hai" [What Kind Of People Are We]), as well as contributions from ghazal vocalist Jagit Singh and Rajasthan folk singer Ila Arun.

The gas at Bhopal was as capricious as it was insidious, cutting down those directly in its invisible path while sparing others just a short distance away. The movie is titled for the commuter train transporting the new bride of the main character, a lowly plant supervisor. She is returning from a family visit-just as the gas is settling over the city. "The song ["Who Are You"] over the opening credits by Lucky Ali actually talks about a wind," explains Mathai, "but it could also be about a woman or a train. It's ambiguous and says, 'Where do you come from, where do you go, what do you bring?' In other words, 'Do you bring good fortune or bad?' "

Included on the soundtrack is a dramatic Hindi recitation by superstar actor Amitabh Bachchan (sometimes called the Marlon Brando of India) of the film's epilogue, which reveals that, 16 years after the disaster, 10-15 people continue to die each month of causes related to the Bhopal gases' long-term effects, which include in utero infection of infants born to survivors. "Neonatal mortality within the first month of birth is still very high," says Satinath Sarangi, the managing trustee of the 4-year-old free Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, who recalls that he "heard about the disaster on the radio in the afternoon" following the leak, back when he was a metallurgy engineering Ph.D. working 100 miles from Bhopal. Arriving the next evening to help treat the stricken population, he stayed for good, relinquishing his previous career aims to help found Sambhavna ("Possibility") Clinic.
But he says a chief obstacle to healing remains Union Carbide.

"Union Carbide had been collecting information on the effects of the gas," explains Sarangi, "which was one of the raw materials of the pesticides. One big area where they collected this information was the Bhopal factory itself, because the workers would have regular medical checkups where their blood and urine would be systematically checked out. But they wouldn't be told a thing. Then they found out that a lot of this data was being used in company research papers as unpublished research done of human 'volunteers'-'guinea pigs' were the exact words that the workers used in their petition to [India's] Supreme Court." Sarangi says that Union Carbide still treats MIC's "effect on the human body and the composition of the leaked gases" as "trade secrets" and that, alarmingly, a 1999 Greenpeace study found the shuttered Bhopal plant to be a toxic waste site of "severe chemical contamination" in dire need of cleanup.

Sued by India for $15 billion, Union Carbide settled in 1989 for $470 million, or 3% of damages sought. The International Medical Commission on Bhopal estimated in a 1996 report that 50,000 survivors still suffer partial or total disability (recent unofficial estimates are 120,000) and that Union Carbide India and Union Carbide USA failed to provide toxicological data needed for medical care or to answer summonses from the Indian courts on charges of culpable homicide-the legal equivalent of manslaughter. A new class-action suit by survivors was filed against Union Carbide Nov. 15, 1999, in the U.S. District  Court for the Southern District of New York, charging it with "depraved indifference to human life." Indeed, Warren M. Anderson, chairman of Union Carbide Corp. in 1984, had been eluding Indian justice since the gas leak, and the Indian government notified Interpol that Anderson was a fugitive. "The settlement with the government of India in 1989 of all claims arising from the Bhopal tragedy did not just cover Union Carbide; it covered all directors, officers, and employees, including Warren Anderson," a company spokesman told The New York Times on March 5. "Based on that settlement, we see no reason to encourage any disturbance of Mr. Anderson, who retired as chairman 12 years ago."

"But three days after The New York Times published that article about the elusive Mr. Anderson, Union Carbide called our lawyers and said, 'OK, we will accept the process served for Mr. Anderson,' and they do it," Sarangi says exultantly. "For them it's a comedown from saying, 'We don't recognize your case or the jurisdiction of the Indian courts.' It's the same judge involved in all this, and he said back in 1986 that Union Carbide should submit to the Indian courts. It almost overwhelmed us,
this response to the case-and the film and the soundtrack." Especially since all proceeds from the latter two efforts benefit the Sambhavna Clinic. "If you keep on at something, some magic miracle happens," says Sarangi. "After the film was screened in Bhopal, this old woman came and said, 'Now I can rest, because we were worried our children's children will forget what we have gone through, and this film will keep this memory alive.' "

As for "Bhopal Express" director Mathai, one of three sons of a south India marketing executive and his homemaker spouse, the film's memorial is also personal. "My younger brother George died from asphyxiation in 1985 on a ship in Mexico," says Mathai. "It was, again, due to corporate mismanagement. He was a merchant seaman on a ship that regularly carried chemicals and fuel between Mexico and places like Cape Canaveral [Fla.]. He had to go down into the tank to do some routine check; they hadn't done the cleanup they should have. He was 20 years old. At the end of the film, that dedication, 'To Georgie,' is for him."