Shaan Khattau’s little-seen documentary The Dark I Must Not Name doesn’t race to the top of lists of films about the Bhopal gas leak, but it needs to. Movies and documentaries about the industrial accident on the night of December 2, 1984, that killed and maimed thousands have mostly been about the campaign to bring the perpetrators to justice and the survivors’ battle for compensation. The documentaries, especially, are well-meaning and necessary, but they are mostly utility-driven projects, aimed at pricking the conscience, raising funds and activating the tear ducts.

The Dark I Must Not Name goes down a different route, and dares to take a poetic and philosophical approach to one of the worst workplace disasters on the planet. Shot during several visits to the Madhya Pradesh capital in 1998 and 1999 and completed by 2002, The Dark I Must Not Name assembles, in diary form, direct and indirect views of Bhopal and its enduring tragedy. 

The 66-minute documentary includes testimonies by victims, conversations with old-time Bhopal residents, impressions of the city and memories of its glorious past, and a tour of the deserted Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant from where the methyl isocyanate gas leaked.

The film’s personal approach to narrative is evident from the title itself. The Dark I Must Not Name is the concluding line of Jorge Luis Borges’s poem Talismans, in which the Argentinean poet and writer lists his many possessions, including a “sword which fought in the desert”, a copy of “Las Empresas, by Saavedra Fajardo, bound in good-smelling Spanish board” and “the love or the conversation of a few people”, but adds that these “talismans” are “useless against the dark I cannot name, the dark I must not name”.

Khattau found Borges’s profound words appropriate to describe her encounters with the horrors of Bhopal, which can be found in the very air, on the faces and bodies of long-suffering victims, in the musty hospitals where the bodies of dead infants have been preserved in formaldehyde, and in the rusting ruins of the Union Carbide plant. 

“I chose the phrase because I was making the film from an intuitive space,” she said. “When I reflected on the title later, it was clear that it wasn’t my place to name the darkness I had witnessed. When you encounter such a tragedy, you don’t know where to begin, and who are you to confront it and talk about it? The film comes from that vulnerable space.”

Khattau’s interest in Bhopal’s spatial details, including its bustling streets, crumbling mansions and cramped working class colonies, is partly a result of her degrees in architecture, film theory and video art. She returned to India in the mid-nineties from the US, and approached advertising filmmaker Mahesh Mathai, who runs Highlight Films in Mumbai, for a job. Mathai, who was also making a movie about the industrial disaster, called Bhopal Express, completed in 1999, asked her if she would like to explore the issue in documentary form instead.

Khattau initially set out to record the role played by women’s oganisations in helping victims obtain compensation. “I did some research but I felt that it would be too limiting to make such a narrow film,” she said. “I asked Mahesh if I could make a broader film, and he left me alone to do it.”

She travelled to Bhopal with her crew, including acclaimed cinematographer and director RV Ramani, with the full knowledge that she was not aiming to “go in there and change lives”, and that a mountain-pile of research and information existed on the event. “I wasn’t unearthing anything or re-digging what had already been done,” she said. “All I could do was honest and tell you what I was seeing and taking from the place. This worked for me – I watched with awe the beautiful horror of the architectural space of Union Carbide.”

Whenever she felt she needed to go down the conventional route, Ramani pulled her back. His cinematography memorably captures the spectral beauty of the city’s past, where mansions resemble mausoleums, and the acute horrors of its painful present. Ramani’s images suggest a city that has lost and died over and over again. “Ramani saved me big time,” Khattau said. “Whenever I tried to play it safe and do an interview, he would say, but this is not your film.”

The Dark I Must Not Name has been shown only a few times at festivals and special screenings. It has not been released on DVD either. Meanwhile, Khattau has embarked on the final phase of a project she has been working on for the past several years. 

Tentatively titled Waiting for Herzog, the feature-length documentary is set largely in a cafe run by Hindustan Times movie critic Rashid Irani, where he and his friends met regularly for refreshments, conversation and arguments about cinema in general and German director Werner Herzog in particular.

Waiting for Herzog is an essayistic exploration of Mumbai’s changing geography (the café has since shut down) and a strain of cinephilia peculiar to the city and its set of characters. Khattau presented a rough cut of the documentary at the recently held Film Bazaar market event in Goa, and she hopes to secure completion funds soon.