IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Kal Penn and Director Ravi Kumar Talk 'Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain'

Friday, 21 November 2014 00:14 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Kal Penn and Director Ravi Kumar Talk 'Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain'

Opening in theaters on November 7th is the new historical drama Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, which is based on a true story and stars Kal Penn

Penn is best known for his roles in such popular film and TV projects as Van Wilder: Party Liaison, Superman Returns, 24, House M.D., How I Met Your Mother, and the Harold & Kumar trilogy. But in 2009 Penn decided to take a break from acting to join the Obama administration as an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement. 

Now back from his side job in D.C., Penn joins Mischa Barton (TV’s The O.C.) and the great Martin Sheen (The Departed, Apocalypse Now, TV’s The West Wing) in Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain. The new film interweaves stories of people in India and the US as they face dilemmas in the months leading to the biggest Industrial disaster in human history that claimed 10,000 innocent lives within a few hours. The movie was written and directed by first time feature filmmaker Ravi Kumar

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Kal Penn and director Ravi Kumar about their work on Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain. The actor and his director discussed their new project, the true story it is based on, why they wanted to make the movie, Penn’s post-White House acting choices, casting Mischa Barton and Martin Sheen, how Bhopal marks the second time Penn has worked with a US President, and what they hope audiences will learn from the film. 

Here is what Kal Penn and director Ravi Kumar had to say about Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain:

IAR: To begin with, Ravi can you talk about the real life event that Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain is based on?

Ravi Kumar: You will have to excuse my accent. When I first hear about the subject, I was twelve I think. This is quite a vivid memory I have. When you start learning in a different perspective it changes everything. We did a lot of research on other subjects from the courtroom documents to the trial and testimony when we were writing the scripts.

Kal, what were your initial impressions when you first read the screenplay, and why did you want to be a part of this film?

Kal Penn: When I first read the script, I was actually very impressed. I knew about the story just from college classes and books that I grew up with. I was hesitant before I read the script because I was worried about it being told from a singular perspective. Whether that perspective in my head would have been industrialization is bad or government corruption is bad, I had a feeling before I read it that it would be through the lens of something that was not artistically interesting. I was wrong which was awesome. I read the script and was floored at the complexities, and I applaud Ravi for that. I think it is a hard thing to do. It is hard to write a film that is succinct, and that is an efficient adaptation of world events that touches on all the complexities of this disaster that lead to it happening. As soon as I read the script, I emailed him back and set up a meeting with him in L.A. That is really when I overheard the passion from which he speaks about why he wants to tell this story. As a first time director it is a huge undertaking. I thought that if this guy is really that passionate about it, I would love to be a part of it.

Kumar: When Kal was first in India, as far from the US you as you can imagine, he was in a pink shirt under an umbrella sweating. He was looking at me with a glare in his eye. “What I am doing here?” he said. I thought that was great. From Kal Penn to Mischa Barton, they came to India in an exotic location where a first time director was trying to make his film. They were very polite to me. It is nice now, but I think it was an event for me.

Kal, did working in the White House for President Obama change the types of projects that you are interested in, and did having that life experience change your approach to acting?

Penn: No. Actually I loved the fact that I have been able to keep the two worlds so separate. I feel like it is a blessing to go from doing these outrageous stoner movies and having the privilege of being on a show like House, which is a very mainstream and network show. Then taking two years off to do something completely unrelated, and then back to Harold & Kumar or an independent film like this. Having audiences still be willing to invite me into their living room or come to the theater is really a blessing. I cannot thank the fans enough for giving me the chance to do that. I also like that the two worlds are separate. When I went to take the sabbatical in D.C., I was straight from Hollywood. I think my first project back from D.C. was How I Met Your Mother. I feel like I was a little rusty if anything from not acting for two years. But I would not say that working in D.C. had any bearing on any of the roles that I am looking for and taking. 

Ravi, you’ve said publically that you wanted to make this movie for the younger generation who did not know the story, and also for the generation who lived through it but may have forgotten about the details. Can you talk about that and your motivations for making this film?

Kumar: What happened when we screened the film early on was that people were surprised it was a fictional drama. They were shocked. But we will be old soon. I mean I am already old. So basically what I am saying is that we actually have the power to do something about our planet. 

I thought actress Mischa Barton gave an excellent performance in the film. Ravi, can you talk about casting her against type for this movie?

Kumar: She is an amazing actress, which is a great bonus. She did an amazing job in the film.

Ravi, how did you get veteran actor Martin Sheen involved in the project?

Kumar: I met one of his friends and gave the script to him. Within 24 hours I got a note that said, “Yes.” So actually because of him, the whole thing generated very quickly. Because of him I think people could tell we were serious. Martin was the driving force behind this project. He changed some lines of the script, and that actually made all the difference in the film. I think he knows how to make films with etiquette. I am a first time director, and he took me under his wing. He was reassuring the whole time. He was a wonderful actor. I do not really know what else to say about him.  

Kal, do you realize that you can now say that you’ve worked with two different Presidents: Barack Obama, and Josiah Bartlet (Sheen’s character on The West Wing). 

Penn: That’s true. I hadn’t thought of that before. 

Finally, what kind of impact are you hoping the film will have with audiences, and do you think with education we can prevent this type of tragedy from ever happening again?

Penn: Yeah, it is an interesting question. We can easily point to disasters like this that have happened, and of course the BP oil spill. It is very hard to point to disasters that have been averted because they do not make the news. I think that is a good thing ultimately but a harder thing to rally around. I think it is always important to remember. If you look at how frequently disasters occur, are they occurring less frequently? Is that not a testament to the fact that it does make sense to put checks and balances, and oversight into industrial plans and environmental regulations, things that the rest of the world does not debate anymore. Our politics mandated that we keep debating these relatively archaic things. But that is fine considering the fact that it is the reality. If a movie like this can help advance that conversation, I think that is great.

Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain opens in theaters on November 7th. 

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