The Railway Men opens with a short coda in the immediate aftermath of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak tragedy, which killed over 15,000 people and is considered the world’s worst industrial disaster. A reporter, played with rugged tenacity by Sunny Hinduja, watches from afar as Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson is first detained on his arrival in India and then, only a few hours later, flown out of the country in a government-sanctioned plane. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” the journalist wryly quotes Gandhi, in voiceover, wondering what such ideals of forgiveness and non-violence mean anymore in a country where the perpetrators of mass slaughter tend to get off scot-free. It’s a loaded reference to make in the context of a disaster that literally blinded hundreds of people from chemical exposure.
There are many ways to begin a show like The Railway Men, with its expansive factual scope and multitude of characters. Thus, it’s telling that director Shiv Rawail, making his debut at YRF Entertainment, would decide to lead with this scene. In a way, it honours the decades of public anger and resentment over Bhopal before telling—as disaster dramas tend to do—a story of hope and civilian courage. Evidently inspired by the acclaimed 2019 miniseries Chernobyl, this 4-part show on Netflix recreates a grim historical tragedy through the eyes of its warriors and emergency responders. In this case, it’s a set of employees of the Indian Railways who conduct a daring rescue operation to save a fraction of the population after highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas escapes from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal on the night of December 2-3.
Iftekaar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon) is the honest and scrupulous stationmaster of Bhopal Junction railway station. Ten years ago, he was involved in a tragic derailment and is haunted by guilt and trauma. Greying and bespectacled, Iftekaar is going over his nightly ledgers when he observes a commotion on the platforms. Passengers coughing, foaming at the mouths, dropping dead in heaps. Though it’s unclear to him in this instance, poisonous gas from the nearby chemical plant has filled the entire city air. On the advice of Balwant (Divyenndu Sharma)—a thief disguised as a Railway Police Force (RPF) constable—Iftekaar assembles the surviving passengers in the waiting room of the station and seals off the doors. Later, with some assistance from loco pilot Imad (Babil Khan), a new recruit, he attempts to contact the nearest junction, asking them to stop the inbound Gorakhpur Express from reaching Bhopal and also send a rescue train.
The Railway Men (Hindi)
Director: Shiv Rawail
Cast: Kay Kay Menon, R Madhavan, Babil Khan, Divyenndu Sharma, Sunny Hinduja, Juhi Chawla, Dibyendu Bhattacharya
Run-time: 50-60 minutes
Storyline: After a deadly gas leak at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal in 1984, employees of the Indian Railways spring to the rescue of the stranded populace
Dramatically, Iftekaar’s message doesn’t reach. Nevertheless, Rati Pandey (R Madhavan), the idiosyncratic General Manager of the Central Railways, picks up on the signs of the unfolding crisis. His first action is to phone Delhi for help—his former partner, Rajeshwari (can Netflix please find full-length roles for Juhi Chawla?), is on the Railway board. The series contrasts the efforts of these brave and selfless railwaymen—and women—with the rampant greed and negligence that led up to the leakage in Bhopal. We learn that the safety controls at the Union Carbide factory were in violent disorder, corporation higher-ups in the US having written off the loss-making pesticide plant in India. The series skirts around the possibility of how the plant—already flagged as hazardous—was allowed to operate in a densely populated area. The central and state governments largely come off clean, both before and after the leak; all we get is a mention of bureaucratic indecision and a brief scene of police corruption.
Of course, with the setting being the winter of 1984, there are other poisons in the air. Indira Gandhi has recently been assassinated; the country is engulfed in retributory anti-Sikh violence. Rajiv Gandhi’s famously chilling line—’when a big tree falls, the earth shakes’—is echoed in a scene where a couple of Sikh passengers encounter rioters on a moving train, and are rescued by a conscientious guard (Raghubir Yadav). Before the rioters get on, several of them chant, “Indira ke hathyaro ko, jaan se maaro saalo ko (Indira’s killers deserve to die)“, echoing a political dog whistle of recent times. There are other contemporary reflections in the series, especially of Covid times: people tying kerchiefs as facemasks, mass burials and cremations, Iftekaar warning his townsfolk not to jump to unverified conclusions.
Kay Kay Menon plays the ageing, watchful stationmaster with a beautiful mix of sternness and empathy (his subordinates lovingly call him ‘Sir Sahab’, a double honorific). Kay Kay has witnessed a career resurgence on streaming; coincidentally, one of his earliest films, Bhopal Express (1999), was backdropped on the same tragedy. R Madhavan and Divyenndu get colourful, if limited, roles, and render them well. Rawail dresses the grand production in sickly hues of green, gray and yellow. Cinematographer Rubais’ camera moves with a doomy inevitability. The weird angles and the enthusiastic camera spins left me feeling physically dizzy—even if the makers were going for maximum immersion, it’s not the best experience to offer viewers watching up close on a small screen.
Iftekaar, Imad, Rati… several of the characters in The Railway Men have a personal cross to bear. It, in turn, steels them in their moment of truth. That a number of its heroes are Muslim, and so were many of the victims of the 1984 tragedy, is left unstressed (at least verbally) in the series. Instead, the show turns, perhaps a bit wishfully, to the oneness of the Indian Railways and the Bhopal people at large. “Yeh meri basti hai, mera seher hai (this is my slum, my city),” Imad says early on. He fails to save it all by the end, but he dies trying.
The Railway Men is currently streaming on Netflix.
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