HBO's 'Chernobyl' Strikes a Chord in India, Leads to Calls for Bhopal Disaster Drama

Chernobyl Finale Still 1- HBO Publicity -H 2019
Courtesy of HBO

The series has sparked discussion about the need for a similar show around the fatal 1984 gas leak at a pesticides plant in central India, which is estimated to have affected over half a million people.

HBO and Sky drama Chernobyl has sparked online discussion in India about one of the world's worst industrial disasters, the fatal gas leak at a pesticides plant in Bhopal in central India just a couple of years before the Soviet Union nuclear disaster, and how it also deserves the TV drama treatment.

The Bhopal tragedy took place on the night of Dec. 2, 1984. An accident at a plant owned by U.S. company Union Carbide (which later merged with Dow Chemicals in 2001) released at least 30 tons of a highly toxic gas, as well as a number of other poisonous gases. According to estimates, about 600,000 people were exposed to the gas while the death toll over the years is estimated to have reached 15,000 people.

Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson was charged with manslaughter by Indian authorities and was arrested on his arrival in Bhopal four days after the tragedy. According to reports, after being held under house arrest for only a few hours, Anderson posted bail and quickly left the country, never returning to face trial, prompting conspiracy theories to this day about government corruption. Anderson died in 2014 at the age of 92.

Indian viewers of the HBO show have drawn parallels between Chernobyl and Bhopal since both man-made disasters seemed to be the result of negligence and state-level mismanagement.

"I reckon writers, directors and producers in India are already Googling ‘Bhopal Gas Tragedy’ after seeing the great reviews #Chernobyl is receiving," tweeted author and screenwriter Bilal Siddiqi whose spy thriller novel The Bard of Blood is being turned into an upcoming Netflix series produced by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan's banner.

U.K.-based Indian TV personality and author Meera Syal, whose credits include BBC's Goodness Gracious Me, praised Chernobyl as a "fiercely intelligent exposition of the human cost of state censorship" and added: "Would love to see similar expose of the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy — half a million victims, mostly poor, mostly forgotten."

Online chatter has also led to speculation as to who would be the right creators to tackle such a show. Well-known Twitter personality, who goes by the name Gabbar Singh (named after the iconic villain from the 1975 Bollywood film Sholay), tweeted, "I hope HBO pays heed to make a series about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy" and also asked his 1.3 million followers, "If at all, which writer-director duo from India do you think can do justice?"

The numerous responses suggested names such as director Anurag Kashyap, whose credits include Netflix's first Indian original, the hard-hitting Mumbai underworld drama Sacred Games, as well as his two-part 2012 drama Gangs of Wasseypur, which revolved around the coal mafia.

While Kashyap has not responded to online requests to tackle a show on Bhopal, he has praised Chernobyl, calling it "by far the best show I have seen ... it just puts all theories to rest as in what makes a great show," prompting a thank you tweet from Chernobyl creator and writer Craig Mazin.

Other online suggestions for possible Indian creators include filmmaker Rahul Dholakia, known for his 2005 film Parzania about the communal riots in the western state of Gujarat. Some Twitter users also tagged director Vivek Agnihotri whose latest release is The Tashkent Files, a hit conspiracy thriller based around the death of former Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri when he was on a state visit to the Soviet Union in 1966.

The Bhopal tragedy has been the topic of some films over the years, such as 1999's Bhopal Express by Mahesh Mathai and starring Kay Kay Menon and Naseeruddin Shah. The 2014 title Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, directed by Ravi Kumar, starred Martin Sheen as Anderson. "Arriving three decades after the fact, this docudrama doesn't quite do justice to its important subject," THR said in its review.

Meanwhile, the possibility of Chernobyl creators undertaking the Bhopal project seem remote. Mazin told THR that a lot of people from India have tweeted him to do a story on Bhopal, saying, "We’ve actually had a tremendous response from India, and a lot of people have tweeted at me from India saying, 'Tell the story of Bhopal,' which is an incredible story."

But he added: "That’s something that I would encourage somebody else to tell, because I just don’t want people to think, like, 'Oh, he’s just trying to play his hits.' You have to write a new song! I know the next thing I'm going to do is something that is about now, and is about here, in the United States, and for better or for worse, I’ll approach it with the same insistence on truth over narrative."