BHOPAL EXPRESS (Mahesh Mathai, 1999)

A man frantically tries to stop a train before it enters Bhopal. The conductor does stop the train, causing the man, insane with joy, to start spastically dancing on the tracks. We return to this scene near the end of Mahesh Mathai’s riveting, heartrending Bhopal Express, where we learn the import of the young man’s weird behavior. Varma had hoped to save Tara, his bride, who was returning home from her mother’s. But Tara, it turns out, was on another train that passes by Varma on adjacent tracks. This is December 3, 1984, and the previous night “forty [metric tons] of lethal gases leaked from an ill-designed Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal.” Varma had worked at the factory, where the alarm had been turned off so as not to alarm the city’s inhabitants. The actual event, “the Hiroshima of the chemical industry,” was “the worst industrial disaster in history.”
     Let me get a few objections out of the way. The happiness of the newlyweds feels artificial—a bit of a set-up for the tatters in which it will be left. Much of the wind-up to the holocaust is protracted and mundane. I appreciate that this is partly deliberate, to underscore the disruption of normality when the tragedy strikes; but it is annoying. Overall, the script by brothers Piyush and Prasoon Pandey, both advertisers, is pat, forced, mediocre.
     But the Hindi film is great nevertheless, a powerhouse melodrama where the realistic background steadily moves into the foreground, enmeshing the lead characters and (literally) countless others in the inconceivably horrific event. It is a stroke of genius on Mathai’s part, for example, that he structures his material as a horror film, with the unleashed methyl isocyanate and hydrogen cyanide assuming the form of a formless alien beast. Moreover, the heavily corpse-strewn ground, especially given Tara’s name, reminds one of a famous scene from a war film: Gone with the Wind (1939). In other shrewd, cutting ways Mathai lays at the door of the United States the atrocities that descended upon Bhopal—chromosomally, now to continue killingly for generations to come.
     Mathai acted as his own cinematographer. His rich colors and the rendering of deep shadows contribute brilliantly to the meanings of his remarkable film.

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