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Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain
  • Composed by Benjamin Wallfisch
  • MovieScore Media / 2015 / 39m

I remember when I first read about the Bhopal industrial disaster, scarcely able to comprehend the scale of the tragedy that befell the Indian city in 1984 when a gas leak from a chemical plant caused environmental disaster, killing thousands of people and leaving up to 150,000 still affected by various defects now, over thirty years later.  Director Ravi Kumar has now made a film of the disaster and its after effects, starring Martin Sheen as the CEO of Union Carbide, the American parent company of the plant’s owners, focusing on the story of one young man who just starts work there when the tragedy unfolds.  

Scoring duties fell to Benjamin Wallfisch, a talented composer who really made people (including me) sit up and take notice recently with his exquisite Summer in February.  This score opens with the outstanding “Elegy for Bhopal”, an impassioned piece so full of feeling – heartbreakingly sad but very beautiful, it’s really rather stunning and deserves a lot of attention and praise.  It’s a standalone piece, not really typical of the rest of the score.

Benjamin Wallfisch

Benjamin Wallfisch

The early portions of the score which follows feature some far lighter music, “Introduction” and “Bhopal” both having a Thomas Newman feeling about them with some playful soloists (including Indian instrumentalists) dancing around and then “Rickshaw” introducing an arrestingly different tone with Indian vocalists singing in a style I’ve never heard before.  “Prayer” is a moment of calm, a beautiful piano-based reflection.

After that, the mood changes completely, with “A Drop on the Arm” introducing some particularly harrowing, horrific electronic effects.  It’s so effectively bleak – understandably so – that it makes for very challenging listening.  The album’s press release describes the “terrifying electronic textures representing the toxic chemicals suffocating the city” and that feeling is captured perfectly by Wallfisch.  The brief “Dusk” isn’t quite as spine-chilling, but “The Disaster” is, pan flutes (or probably an Indian variant) being used by the composer much as Ennio Morricone has occasionally over the years to signify unfolding horror.  The piece leads up to a particularly ghastly electronic conclusion.

“Are We Safe?” certainly has an air of human desperation to it, as its title suggests, little string phrases tentatively expressing themselves over the bleak wash underneath.  Finally a moment of hope arrives in “Good Boy”, a lovely piano solo emerging from the gloom.  A slower reprise of some material from the earlier parts of the score is then heard in “Temple”, which is very pleasant.  “Burning Eyes” lulls the listener into a false sense of security with a moving passage which builds cleverly up to a chilling ending.  This leads into the very dark “Cyanide”, harsh and jarring electronics coming to the fore before being joined by more dissonant ideas from the string section.  “Aftermath” feels like a tour of some charred ruins; then the score ends with an “Epilogue” which does seem to have a few shoots of recovery, particularly as it nears the end.

An original song written by Wallfisch and performed by Mary Lea, “A Prayer for Rain”, closes the album and is actually very tender and attractive, a message of hope after some difficult moments in what’s gone before.  Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain is inevitably very challenging at times but there’s an underlying beauty to it which is never too far away.  It’s very easy to admire the score, even in its darkest moments.  Large portions of it are immediately accessible and that opening elegy would be worth getting even if the rest of the album weren’t so impressive.  This one’s highly recommended.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. tiago (Reply) on Tuesday 12 May, 2015 at 17:39

    That’s a nice score. Benjamin Wallfisch is a really talented composer, I think we’ll hear a lot about him on the next following years.

    Anyway, James, have you heard his excellent “Desert Dancer”? Is an incredible beautiful score, and written basically in the same style that Bhopal (both main themes share some similarities). I recommend it to you to check on it.

  2. ANDRÉ -- Cape Town. (Reply) on Friday 15 May, 2015 at 09:15

    It was BENJAMIN WALLFISCH’S traditional symphonic/choral score for ‘Conquest 1453’ [the Sultan Mehmet, and his massive army, dispense with Christianity in Turkey, and hoist the Islamic flag], that introduced me to themes of heroic splendour and beautiful, emotive love motiffs. I tracked down his other releases [lots of complex orchestrations, but unmemorable themes]. Then the period epic ‘Hammer of the Gods’ was released, and I waited impatiently & expectantly for the CD. However, the producers had demanded untraditional music, and what bombarded my ears was a screeching, electronic, percussive score – hideous music, not unlike the worst of ATLI ÖRVARSSON’S ‘Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters’ but worse [Yes, apologies to WALLFISCH & admirers of this musical genré. All to his own preferances!]. So, before ordering a CD of ‘Desert Dancer,’ I viewed the movie, to assess the score. The film is set in the Iran of 2009–ruled by an intolerant, fundamentalistic Islamic regime. Freedom of expression is totally restricted – and that restriction applies to the Arts…particularly dancing and Western Classicism (banned after the liberal Shah of Persia was toppled from power) where tutus on females would expose too much naked flesh – while tights on males would emphasize the male bulge & buttocks. In this Orwellian atmosphere of repression, a young University student, AFSHIN, fired by the impulse to dance, forms an underground dance group that includes two females [under Koranic law, the social mingling of the sexes is forbidden]. And so, the tension mounts as The Morality Police and their spies become suspicious of the renegades. WALLFISCH’S music (embellished with ethnic instruments), is at first gently unsettling…becoming harsh & violent as the Morality Police now target the dancers and apostatized students. Even the music accompanying dance rehearsals mimics the tortured & grotesque movements of the dancers. There is one sequence where WALLFISCH’S music is ravishingly beautiful, with glorious writing for the Cello supplying emotive support > the dance group, emboldened by their progress, decide to perform a pas de deux before an audience of students among the dunes & sand of the Iranian Desert. This emotive theme is reprised at the film’s end when the real AFSHIN (after being brutalized, he escaped to Paris, like his hero Nuriyev, and is given asylum there) moves towards the camera, with the saddest of smiles– and then the credits start rolling.