Vinita Ramani interviews Shaan Khattau

Why is it that you chose to make a documentary about Bhopal at this juncture in history and how relevant do you think it still is as a disaster in the social context within India itself?

Images of suffering, images of irretrievable pain seen on television, hapless survivors lamenting the loss of loved ones... the list of images and issues that we are confronted with on a daily basis is endless. After large scale events such as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, books get written, films get made, people invariably begin to take sides, activists start rallying, a new language develops through the intervention of the legal, medical and activist communities, a language that describes and articulates pain without experiencing it. But after a point the interest is lost and the issue recedes into obscurity, it loses its sensational value and becomes accepted as an everyday event, as a necessary part of the rituals of development and is remembered annually on the anniversary of the event.

Through an event of a magnitude such as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, I was interested in confronting the larger issues of a certain "managerialisation" of our world views. Also of our own contribution and comfort with the hegemonic processes and to perhaps my own desensitisation to the constant stories of tragedies, small and large, that a country like India experiences constantly. I became interested in visiting this city still dealing with its legacy of pain. I wanted to be part of something larger than my personal life and individual being.

 

The film is more a series of vignettes, or tableaux of the city and its inhabitants than an overarching, factual commentary on a disaster. What was the motivation behind the structural aspect of the film?

During the course of my research I gathered a large number of facts about the event and its aftermath, but started to find that over a period of time all the information, facts and figures became an abstract blur. What remained of significance to me were the many relationships and bonds I had developed with the city and the various people I had grown close to. Through this shared friendship a different image of Bhopal emerged, different to what I could have ever imagined.

I found that real people and stories took over all the ideas and facts about the disaster and its implications at an intellectual level. It was important for me to remain open ended about the writing, shooting and editing process. I was not interested in translating onto film any preconceived notion or expectation of Bhopal. Instead the film needed to find its own logic, to be able to take on a form and life of its own based on a constant discovery process and based on what happens through the process of making it.

This logic naturally dictated the structure of the film; a film with no specific beginning or conclusions, thereby presenting the possibility of opening up more stories and interpretations. A structure was gradually created through the editing of the film, while attempting to rediscover and reconstruct the links between and within the images, sounds and words.

The first vignette with Eina Miyan makes me think one thing: history as palimpsest. Bhopal is erased to reveal Bhojpal, which is erased to reveal Raja Bhoj's kingdom. The Persian poems on large wooden doorways seem oddly obscure, hidden away in some pocket of the city. Yet, history is evidently there, etched into wood. The gas tragedy occurred over 15 years ago, in a sense it has been written over, and yet, it persists in the stories of the people who are still suffering its aftermath. History can never be buried, nor can the tragedy, but it seems to be laden with these other stories... would this observation make sense?

Yes... that's a valid observation. Bhopal used to be known as the city where one would most commonly find its inhabitants leisurely narrating kissas (stories) that were being endlessly improvised on tea-stall benches. This sense of leisure and style seems to have disappeared after the tragedy. It seemed as though the many kissas of Bhopal had been swallowed by this one story of corporate mismanagement. In Eina Miyan we look for the old leisurely Bhopali, for the sense of reverence he has for his city, for the many anecdotes long forgotten. Eina Miyan's ramblings filled me with a sense of the city's bygone glory, a sense of the memories hidden in different corners of the city, of memories besides the ones told and retold by the media. It is these "other" stories that for me in a sense help provide a more meaningful link to the disaster-ravaged site than merely the ones recounting the factual events of the tragedy.

The movement of the vignettes (their ordering) also seems to reveal the progression from the colonial encounter to the arrival of global capital and the oppression as a result. But as many of the people in the film point out, the Indian government was a willing participant and compromised countless citizens with no voice. So, in a sense, it is as if global capital encourages this hegemony, this willing acquiescence to a "larger power." Would the word "globalisation" be applicable to your film, do you think?

I think the film does not directly address the idea of globalisation. However, I believe that the term would be inherent to any discussion addressing an issue such as Bhopal, since in a very obvious sense it reveals the power structure between the First and Third World countries. Also, as you pointed out several people in the film express their anger against the Indian government whom they believe was and continues to be a partner in creating and maintaining this hegemony.

You pull the focus of Sunil's story away from him as the central figure after Bhopal — the child of tragedy — to his stories about a long-lasting love, about wanting to be a driver. Once again, the film unravels the other stories that people have to tell, stories other than the one relating to this disaster. How did the media at the time respond to the disaster and do you think it nevertheless compromised the victims by sensationalising the disaster without asking about the factors that led up to it?

What is a victim of the world's worst industrial disaster supposed to look like? Sunil says to me, "You've chosen the wrong victim for your film. I don't look like a victim anymore, when I was younger and thinner I did." Victimhood is commodified, experience used as commodity, thereby denying the victim a voice. Imagine your memories — those intimate and private memories turned into stories — trauma stories, labels or verbal categories. When I first met Sunil he was totally disinterested and responded with monosyllables. He had no desire to tell his story, he had told it too often.

Sunil had been offered a special status by the media, allowing him to make victimhood a lifelong vocation, in some ways denying him the possibility of seeing himself as anything else. I was certain that I did not want to narrate a tale of victimhood. For me this "star child" of the tragedy became an integral part of the crew and my closest friend in Bhopal. I feel that by pulling back from a focus of relating directly to the gas story and to people as victims of a disaster, to trying to relate to them through their joys, dreams and sorrows, we may get closer to understanding their everyday experience of being violated.

The photo book of black-and-white shots of dead gas victims is almost like a Khmer Rouge catalogue of death. And, in a way, this is much like genocide, is it not? What kind of a political or social response can there be, when one's own government is a willing partner with corporate companies?

I have no real response to this question except that I do agree with you and feel a part of the general sense of apathy experienced by many. In its immediate aftermath the Government of India took on the role of "Parens Patriae," to obtain legal rights to represent and protect the victims who were rendered unable and incompetent to take care of themselves. The government, instead of protecting the victims, set up an infrastructure that diffused the situation and protected Union Carbide, America, so that they were prevented from taking on any direct responsibility towards the disaster.

Has the issues unravelled in this film prompted you to explore similar issues or will you be taking a different direction with your filmmaking for your next project?

I'm still in the process of figuring out where I can go from here…


Note: The above interview was published in BigO #196 (April 2002).
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