MUSIC TO MY EARS 'Bhopal Express':
Try To Catch The Wind
from the Billboard online site http://www.billboard.com
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."