Coming to theatres from director Ravi Kumar and Revolver Entertainment is BHOPAL: A Prayer for Rain. Starring in the film as Motwani the journalist is the versatile actor Kal Penn.
Beginning his acting career in 1998, he could be seen in such films as EXPRESS: Aisle to Glory, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder and the absolutely hilarious HAROLD & KUMAR films.
He also spent some time on the smaller screen with roles in the hit series 24 and HOUSE. Penn recently has had a reoccurring role on the series HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER as well.
It surprised many people when, in 2012, Penn took time away from acting to become Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and in 2013 he served on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
But that didn’t keep him away from the big screen as BHOPAL: A Prayer for Rain comes to the screen November 7th and internationally in December of this year. This film tells the story of the 1983 Union Carbide tragedy in the town of Bhopal, India. Penn plays Motwani, a journalist who knows there is something unsettling at the plant.
I had the fantastic opportunity to speak with Penn, who has been a favorite actor of mine for some time now, about the film BHOPAL, his role, the cast and what drew him to jump onto the project. Here is our conversation that is very candid about his work and the film:
Hi Kal, it’s so great to talk to you today.
I saw the film and after so many years since the incident what made you decide to take on the project?
When the writer, Ravi Kumar, sent me the script and I had known some about the disaster. I thought it was really powerful in that he wrote a script that is only 90 minutes and it was complex enough that it went into all the issues about what happened. From the corporate negligence to public corruption and the role of the lack of environmental checks and balances as well. A lot of times when you look at fictional adaptations they are over simplified or they place blame on one side or the other instead of providing a rounded picture. I thought Ravi had done it in a really smart way and I wanted to work on the film. The other thing was asking him how much was based in reality and we are doing a fictionalized adaptation of the event. So looking at how fictionalized it was and talking to him since he grew up in the region and he said, ‘look, I know we are fictionalizing this but I want to do justice to these characters because these are real people.’ They are either based on real people or survivors of this accident. Intimately it’s different than other projects I have worked on. Very different than Harold and Kumar, different from House and that’s kind of selfishly was a reason to do it, and of course Martine Sheen being in it didn’t hurt.
How did you get him to play such a character?
He was the first actor to sign on, even before I did. He is very, very passionate about social issues and he knows so much about these things. I think he’s been really active and in partnership with Amnesty International. I look up to him to be able to put his talents in a place where he knows people will watch it because he’s attached to it.
I was rooting for him at first and then….
I think that’s what so good about that character the way Ravi has written him and Martin portrayed him. He is complex and it would be very easy for Martin to be a villain or to be a nice guy. The fact that you see the tough choices that he makes or the lack thereof is kind of a dynamic performance that he gives I think.
To watch his mind go crazy at the end, looking for a way out of it all, wow. Did you know a lot about the accident at the Union Carbide planet before becoming involved in the film?
I was. I remember vaguely from when I was a kid from things on the news but in college I read a bunch on articles for a Developmental Studies class. I didn’t really explore it again until we revisited the material to prep for the film.
How did you put together this character for this time period, because we are talking quite some time back?
As far as the period stuff goes that was some of the easier stuff to research because I pulled from archives what it was like at that time. The lazy part of you of course relies on the costume designer and director. I think the bigger challenge was, in the case of my character, is that he is loosely based on a real journalist at that time but not entirely. When I asked Ravi if I should go and look this guy up and spend time with him, Ravi said no. Ravi believed that he was fictionalized enough that he didn’t need me to play him but play our version of him. He starts out really broad in that he’s a gossip columnist for this little town and over the course of the film you realize he cares very deeply about the town he lives in. He really wants to warn people about this information he’s finding and no one believes him of course because he is a gossip columnist. That’s kind of the harder part because it’s fictionalized. Its something so deeply powerful and you want to do it justice. Like I was saying in the piece for the sake of the people still living with the consequences of it and you’re playing a largely fictionalized character. So I think that was kind of a bigger challenge than just being a period piece.
When you were working with the other cast, were you amazing by there performances because I sure was.
Yes, I was! Anytime you shoot an independent film you are shooting on the fly and you don’t get that many takes. You really have to concentrate because little things can go wrong and upset the whole take. Seeing these guys work – we were really a global cast. There were only three Americans; me, Martin Sheen and Mischa Barton and then you’ve got all the Indian actors. Rajpal Yadav who plays the lead worker is tremendous and an incredible actor.
He almost made me cry!
He did make me cry! On the days we were shooting some of the scenes, it wasn’t even the scenes at the end that brought a tear to my eye, it was the simple things. There was a couple of scenes at the tea shop where my character pulls up with his flashy shirt and his newspapers and you see Rajpal come up so desperately looking for work to put food on the table. The way he played that character with humility and not with desperation, he gave that character so much dignity. Just really incredible performances by those actors.
He absolutely did. My heart broke when the wheel feel off the rickshaw. Okay, let’s talk about your ‘accent’ – yes I’m using air quotes here.
Oh thank you.
How was that for you?
That was totally unexpected and let me tell you why! Doing an Indian accent and speaking English is fine and that’s mostly what I prepped in the two months before the film. Ravi lives in London, we shot the movie in India and I live in Los Angeles at the time. I prepped for the movie on my own for those two months and when I got to India and we had the first rehearsal Ravi looks at me and says, ‘great, now do it in Hindi.’ I was like what? What do you mean do it again in Hindi? He says, ‘you know you’re playing a Hindi journalist in 1983. He’s Hindi, he doesn’t speak English’. <laughing> I said Ravi, you sent me a script in English and all my lines are in English. There was never a conversation about speaking Hindi. I don’t speak Hindi! He thought I did, I speak Gujarati which is a different. It’s saying that because you know one doesn’t mean you know the other. So we started this really rapid session with a dialect coach and such and I learned the lined I needed to learn. There was actually a fairy amount of prep in the week prior to shooting.
Did you enjoy speaking the Hindi lines?
I enjoyed it but it was also terrifying! It was your stereotypical actors nightmare in that I knew all my lines but in the wrong language. Since it’s a period piece there is also a regional dialect in English and for the Hindi. The danger was I didn’t want to sound like an America speaking Hindi but I also didn’t want to sound like I was a Deli-ite speaking English.
You’re character reminded me of TMZ without the internet, especially when he would say ‘what’s the gossip?’ So, the scene between you and Rajpal where you come in all slick like and want information from him. That scene is so jolting and the look on your face with the deer-in-the-headlights; as if you had been snapped into the real world like you got caught with your humanity down.
Yes, I think there were a couple of moments of varying degrees where, and this is what I really liked about Matwani’s arc (his character), there are different points where he questions why he does things the way he does them. A lot of them like he’s unapologetic about his headlines because he wants to put food on his table, but when he meets Mischa’s character he does care about telling a real story. I think the reason why he tries to get her to tell the story about Union Carbide is because he knows no one will believe him. So on one hand he has got to sell newspapers by making up things but on the other hand he does have the information and he does care about these people. When those two things are conflicted, especially when he gets called out, it embarrassed him I think. I was glad that that’s how it was written with all his complex emotions instead of just being kind of one note.
The newspaper with the spaceship was kind of National Enquirer nuts.
Although, if you poke around with a lot of the tabloid press abroad they make our tabloid press look like its factual!
I’ve seen some of those, at least our nuts I can deal with. Have you been to where the Union Carbide plant use to be?
I have not.
Is there a reason?
The reason we shot the movie in Hyderabad I think had more to do with the locations as far as I know. The same with Mumbai for the second half of the shoot. I think Mumbai was sort of what L.A. is to our film industry. I understand that they are premiering the film in Bhopal which is in December.
That’s fantastic. Did you have a chance to meet survivors?
Yes, we did after the screenings in the U.S. One of the reasons that I didn’t is because Ravi had so much focus on my character being 80% fictionalized and only 20% was real and obviously the fact that the city of Bhopal looks nothing like 1983. It seemed like relying on the research and primary source documents that the writer was using plus the fact that I had to learn Hindi quickly was using up time. A lot of those that lived through it attended our screening in New York. I thought it was so interesting their reactions to the film, it seemed like it was a very emotional reaction they had to the film. Juxtapose that with New Yorkers who didn’t even know this had happened and didn’t know it was based on a true story and their reaction was emotional but also angry. They were angry that they didn’t know this had happened, felt angry that people were not fairly compensated and that the company never apologized. It was actually really interesting to be part of a screening where I got to meet both survivors and meet people who didn’t know what they were going to watch before they went into it. I have a feeling we will have more of those interactions in the next month or two when it opens in the U.S. November 7th and India in December.
I have to say Ravi did not hold back. The moment you see the smoke come out of the plum to the very end just – I didn’t expect I think to see what happened to these people.
I wasn’t expecting to see that either. It’s one of those things when you’re not in the actual scene and you read it but you might not be working the night of the shooting. Any scene I wasn’t in I was at the hotel preparing. So I didn’t realize how graphic it was until I saw the first screening of it and I was kind of floored too. We have done a couple of screenings and one recently in Mumbai and it was a split audience. We had some from the consulate and some from Bollywood and a number of journalists. We had some who said it was a hard last 15 minutes to watch of the film. Then there were also one or two left the screening and stayed in the lobby. They said they didn’t have it in them to watch and they felt terrible. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I think it’s a testament to what you said; Ravi shows very powerful imagery for that film. I’ve heard from others comparing it to other films they couldn’t stomach like scenes from Hotel Rwanda and I thought wow. I certainly never thought when we shot this film that people would make those kinds of comparisons but I think the script is powerful.
You seem to enjoy films that are involved with social and politics issues, is that something that’s near and dear to you?
I think social and political issues are near and dear to me but I don’t think that’s my outlook on playing characters necessarily. The thing that I like about what I do is the aspect of storytelling. The fact that you could have a captive audience and they are meeting characters that they would never meet in real life. Whether that’s a silly, ridiculous stoner movie where they are laughing because they don’t smoke week or eat hamburgers but they understand friendship and feel connected to the characters because of that friendship. Or like Bhopal where they have never been to India and don’t know anyone from India yet everyone can relate to the complexity of having to witness an industrial disaster although we might not have experienced one in our own back yard. I think there is a certain magic and power of storytelling that I really, really enjoy. I use to respond to that as an audience member and it brought me to being an actor. On the one hand yes that is something I’m passionate about but I don’t know that they are necessarily tied in me being an actor explicitly.
Thanks Kal for talking to us about BHOPAL: A Prayer for Rain and congratulations to you all for bringing to the world’s attention. It really has been great speaking with you.
Thank you so much and please tell you’re Kumar I said hello.
The film BHOPAL: A Prayer for Rain is not to be missed. It is a story that deserved to be told and writer/director Kumar did not hesitate to bring the audience to its emotional knees in the telling.