It’s an unsolved mystery in Hollywood why so many based-on-true-life polemical films end up so unremarkable. Often, the obligatory stats at the end credits about corporate negligence and paltry damage sums are more galling than anything in the actual movie. Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, tracking the days leading up to the disastrous 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in central India, is, sadly, no exception.
Writer/director Ravi Kumar manages a few nerve-racking sequences: repeated shots of deadly fluids splashing through pipes and turbines; fly-on-the-wall viewpoints of searing workplace injuries; and a devastating finale in which escaping toxic gas engulfs a shantytown wedding. And he at least gives this grim story a hint of comic relief by adorning star Kal Penn, as an enterprising reporter, in a loud yellow plaid suit (and a louder mustache).
But the only character with more than one dimension is Dilip (Rajpal Yadav), the ill-fated plant worker whose gratitude to his employers is coupled with a growing sense of unease. The others are stick figures. Penn, bent on exposing Union Carbide’s shady practices, seems to be the only person in all of Bhopal who casts public doubt on the global giant: He’s the Skeptical Hero. Martin Sheen is the firm’s gruff CEO who willfully ignores signs of factory decay; he’s Walking Greed.
Mischa Barton plays a lifestyle reporter whom Penn turns on to the plant scandal scoop; she lies that she’s with the AP to score a one-on-one interview with Sheen — she’s Blind Opportunism. All are perfectly adequate, like the film itself.