I am used to getting a headache after watching most Hindi films and TV shows. The Railway Men gave me nausea. It might not sound like it, but for a series that revolves around the 1984 Bhopal Gas Disaster, this is a compliment. The dizziness begins during a sequence which shows people–after realizing the air smells funny and fatal—frightened and running amok on a railway station platform. We witness the scene from the POV of the station master Iftekaar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon). As Siddiqui’s past trauma kicks in, the camera woozily rotates 360 degrees. On the tracks, people drop like flies. Some shatter windows and break doors to cramp inside a claustrophobic railway office. More than the poison, the air carries wails for help. The muted blue and green colour grading aggravates the sense of doom. You feel light-headed, breathless, even queasy. If only the makers could sustain this necessary discomfort, I wouldn’t have minded throwing up for good content, for a change.
Directed by: Shiv Rawail
Starring: Kay Kay Menon, Divyenndu, Babil Khan, R Madhavan, Sunny Hinduja, Raghubir Yadav, Juhi Chawla and Mandira Bedi
Streaming on: Netflix
Effectively, rather than trying to document the entirety of what was the world’s worst industrial disaster, The Railway Men mostly restrains itself to the happenings of a single night. What chaos erupted at the Bhopal junction on the night of December 2, 1984, when the toxic Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) gas got leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in the city. The story unfolds through five different characters: An honourable station master, Iftekaar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon), who, in his nightmares, frequently sees the child he couldn’t save during a train accident; Loco-pilot Imaad Riaz (Babil Khan), who lost a friend due to Carbide’s negligence; A conscientious reporter Jagmohan Kumawat (Sunny Hinduja), trying to expose the apathy of the factory’s management; General Manager of Central Railways Rati Pandey (R. Madhavan), who puts people over protocol; and Balwant Singh (Divyenndu), an impostor who puts the con in constable.
The series mostly executes like a tense survival drama. A train needs to be assembled to get the coughing, red-eyed suffering populace out of Bhopal, another is incoming from Gorakhpur with passengers unaware of the happenings in the city, yet another is out to rescue the victims. A clash needs to be avoided. Fear is also flaring among those at the station and a stampede is inevitable. It’s now up to Siddiqui, Riaz and Singh to save the day (night).
Debutant director Shiv Rawail poignantly depicts the effects of the leak. We hear dogs howling as humans run out of breath. A wedding horse lies lifeless alongside the bride. The gooey green insides of a lung affected by MIC are shown. It’s just that Rawail doesn’t know when to pull the chain on the grimness. An infant sucks on the breast of its frothing mother and the series, at times, inches close to the edge of becoming disaster porn. The gaps, however, get overshadowed by a story that offers enough gasps. This train stops for nothing.
The performances also provide the necessary propulsion. Kay Kay Menon is the looming conscience of the series. You feel privy to his pain. Babil Khan, as the doe-eyed loco-pilot might have gone a bit thick on the Bhopali accent but is still earnest and sincere. Madhavan, as the GM of Central Railways, offers a commanding act. His character could have gone into offering sermons on the indestructibility of the human spirit but the motivational speech he ultimately gives is rather humane. Divyenndu’s impostor seems like a pure cinematic add-on but he slips in tidbits of necessary humour in an otherwise bleak show. Sunny Hinduja as the determined journalist ably represents the pessimism of anybody failed by the system. Veteran actor Raghubir Yadav is part of a few scenes but leaves an indelible impact.
It’s sad to see shows starting on novel tracks ultimately resorting to the roads often taken. The momentum soon runs into melodrama. The need to exhibit the indomitableness of human courage takes over. US capitalists are villainized but the vigilance at home is rarely questioned. There are incessant and overbearing shots of newspaper clippings and news footage from the time of the disaster. An image from the fateful night is displayed and then it is shown how it was recreated for the series. It seems like there is an urge to root the making in the authenticity of journalism and research. Real will always surpass the reel but there is still truth in fiction.