1984 was the year of terrible tragedies in contemporary Indian history. The most vivid was the brutal pogrom against the Sikh community following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The other, equally horrific episode was an industrial accident of unparalleled proportions – the Bhopal gas disaster. While the former finds place in popular discourse even today (often for political gains!), the latter, inexplicably, appears to have dimmed from public consciousness, failing to evoke passionate debates in mainstream media – a sad reality considering the magnitude of the catastrophe.
In Netflix’s new series The Railway Men: The Untold Story of Bhopal 1984, produced by Yash Raj Films, the two chapters of anguish are intertwined, to create a gripping, poignant saga of courage in the face of adversity. The four-episode series hooks you right from the first frame when a voiceover questions Gandhi’s policy of non-violence especially when applied to entities that wrong society yet go scot-free.
In this case, it was Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL), the owner of which was UCC, a gigantic American corporation. For those unaware of the facts, a quick recap: UCIL made Sevin, a pesticide, which they believed would yield huge profits when introduced to Indian agriculture. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned and the company was in the red. The plant was being operated with only a small maintenance staff but in a show of sheer callousness, Union Carbide ignored safety warnings and failed to act on the deteriorating condition of the tanks holding the poisonous chemical methyl isocynate (MIC).
On the night of December 3, 1984, the unthinkable happened. The MIC leaked from the plant resulting in the death of 15,000 people within hours, and crippling an entire generation.
All of the above are known facts and have been the subject of countless books, documentaries, reports and movies including Kay Kay Menon’s second film Bhopal Express, and French author Dominique Lapierre’s evocative novel Five Past Midnight in Bhopal. But in some calamities, no single work of art can effectively encapsulate the depth of the suffering. Especially in a story like this which has many threads – moral, ethical, legal, humanitarian and social.
Debutant director Shiv Rawail wisely resists the temptation to broad base his story. Instead, he focuses on one single plotline – the herculean efforts of the Railway employees who moved heaven and earth to save lives and also stop a train from arriving at Bhopal station which would have exposed passengers to toxic air.
Rawail places the action in and around Bhopal junction where Kay Kay Menon, the station master hires young Imad Riaz (Babil Khan) as a loco pilot. The railway men do their jobs while life in the vicinity goes on. A worried mother, a young bride, two street children, a factory worker, an investigative journalist…these characters are introduced in quick succession (Lapierre’s book narrates the story through a similar set of characters). Into this scene enters a petty thief (Divyenndu – Munna Bhaiya of MIrzapur), who is eyeing the Railway vault. Concurrently, there are snippets of action from the Union Carbide factory where the bosses are aware of an impending leak but are looking for ways to hide facts.
All hell breaks loose when the gas leaks, people start dropping dead like flies and the enormity of the situation dawns on the protagonists who only have a few hours to stop another train from reaching the junction. The chaos is compounded due to communication lines being down (this was 1984 remember?). In a parallel thread, a Sikh mother and child are escaping marauding mobs in the afore-mentioned train. The goons are out to kill every Sikh person they see and soon close in on the duo as well. Their only hope is to reach Bhopal which, by then, has become a deathbed.
All these elements give the series a sense of urgency and Rawail treats it like a thriller. To be fair, it largely succeeds in bringing out the horrors of the accident and the prevailing politics without sensationalising either. I say largely, because the entry of R Madhavan somewhat dilutes the impact of what was raw, relatable and scathing until then. Maddy plays Rati Pandey, the GM, Central Railways who makes a rather ‘hero’ like entry with the camera panning up and down. Once he is on screen, there is a sense of relief that the city is now in safe hands. Rati tries to shake up a sleepy establishment with the help of Railways’ DG Rajeshwari Pandey (a subdued Juhi Chawla) with whom he has a conflicted, unexplained relationship, to ensure a relief train reaches Bhopal with the antidote and other materials. Fortunately, aside from a few ‘Bollywood-like moments’ the series keeps it subtle and real.
Earlier this year, Netflix streamed another series, based on a different man-made tragedy. The Abhay Deol-starrer Trial by Fire, inspired by the Uphaar theatre fire, was a slow burn that drew you into the lives of the victims and made you internalise their grief and become a part of their fight. The Railway Men has a different impact. Capturing the havoc of one night, it pumps up the adrenaline but you are still viewing it as the outsider. This could be due to broad brush strokes in which some aspects have been covered due to which some important side elements get the short shrift. For example, the screenplay does touch upon political corruption and corporate greed but ultimately, they just become one-note villains. The government with its lackadaisical response to the disaster is painted as an all-black, lumbering behemoth that makes things difficult for our protagonists. While that might be true, a little more attention to the bureaucratic bungling and motivations would have made it more layered.
What takes The Railway Men several notches above the ordinary are the performances. Kay Kay Menon as the beleaguered station master trying to overcome an unbelievable situation is pitch-perfect. His eyes effectively convey his grief, fear and courage. Matching the veteran actor at every step is Babil Khan as the rookie loco pilot who goes beyond the call of duty to save lives. He is vulnerable yet brave, steely yet scared and Babil shows remarkable growth as an actor.
Madhavan is fab despite the limited screen time and the same can be said about Juhi Chawla. Her special appearance in an underwritten part makes you wonder about the point of her role. Sunny Hinduja as the intrepid journalist (real life reference: journalist Rajkumar Keswani who first foretold the tragedy) is excellent and deserved a more detailed arc while Divyenndu lends his character a touch of irreverence.
But these are minor quibbles in what is an impactful series. Considering that all incidents and most of the characters are real-life victims and heroes (watch the end credits to know more), The Railway Men is a powerful homage to ordinary people who rise high amidst the worst of tragedies.
The Railway Men
Director: Shiv Rawail
Cast: Kay Kay Menon, Babil Khan, R Madhavan, Divyendu