“Bhopal gas leak” and “feel-good inspirational drama” don’t quite go together. One of the worst industrial disasters in the world has inspired several sobering documentaries, including Shaan Khattau’s brilliant, unorthodox The Dark I Must Not Name (2022). The feature films include Mahesh Mathai’s Bhopal Express (1999), starring Kay Kay Menon in his first prominent role.
Menon is one of the leads of The Railway Men. Shiv Rawail’s limited series is a compelling tale of the heroism of Indian Railway employees on the night of December 2, 1984, when a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal began spewing poisonous gas into the air.
Rather than dwelling on the lingering tragedies associated with the catastrophe – the resultant physical and mental disabilities, the lengthy legal battles to prosecute the guilty, the continuing struggle for fair compensation – the show sets out to mine diamonds from the ashes.
Heavily influenced by the acclaimed American series Chernobyl, The Railway Men traces the build-up to an entirely avoidable accident – the result of callous bosses, poor safety standards and faulty equipment – as well as its immediate fallout. One of the most vivid images in The Railway Men, which has been lensed by Rubais, is of the noxious gas floating over a factory employee’s corpse in the direction of the rest of Bhopal.
The handsomely produced series is out on Netflix. Over four episodes, we meet a range of people who pay a heavy price for criminal neglect.
It’s another day at work for Bhopal Junction’s station master Iftekaar (Menon). His newest recruit is Imad (Babil Khan), a former Union Carbide worker who has seen first-hand the hazardous short-cuts taken by the pesticide manufacturing company.
The mayhem at Bhopal Junction, which is near the factory, severely strains Iftekaar’s unflinching sense of duty. Imad pitches in despite his lack of experience. An unlikely source of help is notorious train thief Baldev (Divyenndu).
At Itarsi, maverick Railways employee Rati Prasad (R Madhavan) leads an unsanctioned relief operation. In Delhi, principled Railways Ministry bureaucrat Rajeshwari (Juhi Chawla) tries to nudge her slow-moving bosses into action.
Journalist Kumawat (Sunny Hinduja) is looking to blow the lid on Union Carbide’s operations. Union Carbide manager Kamruddin (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) is one of the first witnesses when the methyl isocyanate bursts out of its storage.
Aayush Gupta’s screenplay emphasises the can-do spirit that propels ordinary citizens grappling with a calamity beyond their comprehension. Despite ample scope for histrionics, the series dials down the melodrama. Except for some moments of needless overkill, The Railway Men maintains a sombre tone while foregrounding its empathy over the senseless loss of lives.
Not all of the show’s ideas are smoothly conveyed. Some of the characters, who are played by recognised actors, get short shrift.
A sub-plot taking place on the Gorakhpur Express, which is unwittingly hurtling towards Bhopal, momentarily threatens to derail the momentum. Some of the choppiness comes from trying to braid together events occurring simultaneously across different locations. The American actors who play Union Carbide employees or the company’s critics are too weak to be convincing.
The Railway Men is most engaging when it sticks to Bhopal Junction. Kay Kay Menon and Divyenndu are excellent as amateur rescuers forced to improvise an evacuation plan straight out of a movie. Both actors ably portray the humanity mustered up in impossible circumstances.
One of the show’s stars shines in the background. The Railway Men boasts of a superb production design by Rajat Poddar.
Photographs of Bhopal as it was at the time are included in the series, along with remarkably faithful recreations. The life-like sets of the railway station, Union Carbide and the slum that is at the plant’s gates add further layers of verisimilitude to a rescue mission that sounds like a fairy tale, except that it actually happened.