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One Night in Bhopal (2004)

Tells the story of the world's worst industrial disaster with a drama reconstruction through the eyes of five survivors.


Steve Condie


Avie Luthra




Tells the story of the world's worst industrial disaster with a drama reconstruction through the eyes of five survivors.

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When East meets West
3 January 2015 | by GoingbeggingSee all my reviews

The Bhopal catastrophe is a story that can still tear at the heart, and any documentary on the subject will be dominated by images that raise the temperature of the debate, just as that leaking water raised the temperature of the pesticide that suddenly exploded across the shanty-huts where thousands huddled close to the factory as the merciful giver of work and food.

From the very first words, the narrator sounds as though she is accusing the company - a familiar BBC style of leftish commentary, precise and piercing, apparently from a young WASP, until the end, when her name comes up as Indira Varma.

There is no doubt that it can look bad for Union Carbide, especially after the high hopes with which the vast new factory was launched. Introducing poor hill-farmers to the wonders of pest control. Creating well-paid jobs for locals, with opportunities for promotion. Generally a win-win prospect, greeted with proud slogans all the way.

This may have been part of the problem. UC were not grand philanthropists, just ordinary managers looking for new business. The trouble started when a bad drought impoverished the local farmers, who could not afford to buy the product. Suddenly it was all cuts in investment, and unfortunately in safety standards too. This could hardly have been more serious in the case of that particular chemical, Methyl Isocyanate, so unstable that it would rapidly heat-up and explode when mixed with water.

It is doubtful whether the people carrying out the routine cleaning tasks had been notified of this. One policy was not to alarm the Indians, perhaps mistrustful of high chemistry. So the product was sold to them as 'medicine for plants', and the company's internal memos about the dangers of a runaway reaction were never circulated to faraway Bhopal.

As far as blame goes, UC are not the only suspects. For one thing, it was their local contractors who took many of the decisions about day-to-day maintenance, which led crucially to the disaster. But I seem to detect another basic root-cause in two little snatches of dialogue between husbands and wives employed at the plant. In one case, the wife is a safety-officer married to a maintenance worker, and tells him they should quit, but he claims they can't afford to sacrifice their new pay and conditions. In another similar case, the husband just answers in a fatalistic way "They are American. We are Indian." It is impossible to hear about all those corroded pipes and leaking valves without being reminded of third-world standards that cannot always be transformed by decree (all the manuals were in English, for example), and I think we may be looking at a simple culture-clash between East and West.

It is quite hard to fill an hour on this topic without showing long minutes of death and suffering, which can get repetitive and blunt the impact. The guided tour of the plant and its various processes was done better by National Geographic in their slightly later video of equivalent length. And I feel it would have been appropriate to show some of the local farms, explaining what kind of pests the wonder-chemical was meant to control.

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Release Date:

1 December 2004 (UK) See more »


Box Office


GBP200,000 (estimated)
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BBC tv See more »
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