Film on Bhopal tragedy: Journo who exposed rot at carbide plant hurt at ‘gossip columnist’ tag

New Delhi: Rajkumar Keswani, an award-winning journalist from Bhopal who exposed lacunae in the Union Carbide plant of his city in 1984, and was unfortunately proved right with the gas tragedy of 2-3 December in the same year, has been reportedly portrayed as a ‘salacious gossip columnist’ in the film on the subject. The Martin Sheen–starrer, Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain, directed by Ravi Kumar and featuring Kal Penn, Rajpal Yadav and Mischa Barton, releases in India on 5 December.

Keswani, who was planning to sue the Hollywood filmmakers, has put the idea on hold on advice of his lawyers and wants to watch the film before taking any legal action. Keswani’s character is essayed by Penn — a Hollywood actor of Indian origin — in the film as a ‘gossip columnist’ Motwani, who is one of the protagonists of the story through whose eyes the tragedy unfolds.

Kal Penn in the film. Image courtesy: Facebook page of Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain.

Kal Penn in the film. Image courtesy: Facebook page of Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain.

“Yes, it’s true that I’ve been contemplating to take legal action against the makers of the film – Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, as they reportedly portrayed my character in the film as a ‘gossip columnist’, contrary to what I am. But, now I’ve been advised by my lawyer to watch the movie first before taking any further action; because I’ve been informed that the director has amended the objectionable portions in the film,” Keswani told Firstpost.

The film is based on the world’s worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which occurred when fatally poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in the capital of Madhya Pradesh on 2-3 December, 1984, killing more than 3000 (official 3787) and disabling many more over the years.

Though people in India are yet to watch the film — it released in the US in November — Penn has gone on record saying that his character in the film is that of a ‘gossip columnist’. In an interview to The Movie Network, an online film news portal, he says, "Keswani was reporting on both gossip, and the disaster in the ’80s... I mean, yes, he’s a gossip columnist, but the one bit of real true investigative journalism that he does, he does with the help of a foreign journalist, Eva’s character or the character of Eva, and nobody believes him in the town, because he’s written so many salacious headlines, that’s your classic, boy who cried wolf story. And I thought, it was also interesting that he needed not just an outsider, but a foreigner, in order to get access to a plant that was, literally, in his own backyard."

Both Keswani and the activist groups working for the rehabilitation of gas disaster victims are offended at this portrayal of the journalist as well as the people of Bhopal.

Keswani has also taken umbrage over the character of a foreign female journalist who helps the protagonist in his investigation.

In real life, Keswani, who was then a young reporter, did a series of investigative stories on the negligence in safety procedures by the company management. Citing an audit report, Keswani in one of his articles in the Hindi newspaper Jansatta — from the Indian Express Group — had cautioned about severe lapse of safety precautions in the Union Carbide plant, just a few days before the gas tragedy occurred. The character of a foreign lady journalist too apparently is totally fictitious.

"The activists showed me the copies of the original film script and screenplay where the character was named Keswani after me, and there were objectionable portions. Even Bhopal and its people were shown in a bad light. The makers of the film were trying to distort truth and history, and the activist groups strongly objected to it and took it up with the filmmakers," he mentioned.

"Even, in one of the promos on YouTube, my photo has been used, which shows that the reel character, which was later changed to Motwani is based on my character. But, I was never consulted by the director or the actor who played my character," said Keswani, who at present is a columnist and editor of his online news portal The Bhopal Post.

Like him, activist groups from the city too were not consulted.

A Bhopal-based senior journalist who had worked with national English dailies in Delhi and other state capitals, and has known Keswani since college days, questioned, "Right after graduation, Keswani pursued serious journalism and not the tabloid variety. He even published his own news weekly, apart from writing for Jansatta and other publications. Why should a film based on a true character, which is so recent, distort it in the name of cinematic liberties?”

Added another senior journalist NK Singh: “He was a hardworking journalist and never indulged in gossip reporting. He wrote a lot on Union Carbide plant and after the tragedy, was also awarded for his investigative journalist.”

Keswani bagged BD Goenka award for his journalistic contribution on Bhopal Gas Tragedy. “During my investigation between 1982 and 1984, I came across a safety audit report of May 1982, which I had quoted in my article in Jansatta of 16 June, 1984, and subsequently vital portions of it in the columns of this newspaper on 9 December, 1984. The report disrobes the ‘holier than thou’ stance of Union Carbide as far as the safety precautions at the Bhopal plant are concerned,” said Keswani.

Keswani is waiting for the film’s release, so that he can take a decision. “A mediator on behalf of the film’s producer and director communicated to me that changes have been incorporated in the film and objectionable portions removed.”

Social activist working with gas tragedy survivors Rachna Dhingra said, “We took up the issue related to ‘objectionable portions’ with Martin Sheen and after his interventions, changes have been made. Bhopal is waiting to watch the film.”


Updated Date: Dec 04, 2014 17:35 PM

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