Shiv Rawail’s The Railway Men showcases the valour of Indian Railways officials in the immediate aftermath of the Bhopal gas leak disaster on December 2, 1984. One of the key locations in the Netflix series is Bhopal Junction, whose station master leads a near-impossible mission to shepherd survivors to safety.
A poster for the Hindi film Jagir, which was released in 1984, adorns a wall at the station. This seemingly minor detail, like others in the background, cues viewers into the period in which the show is set, production designer Rajat Poddar pointed out.
“It’s important from a psychological point of view – even if the viewer doesn’t actually spot the poster, it plays a role,” Poddar told Scroll. “These small elements are a part of the ambience that transport you to that era.”
The Railway Men has an ensemble cast that includes Kay Kay Menon as the station master, Divyenndu, Babil Khan, R Madhavan, Juhi Chawla and Dibyendu Bhattacharya. The show has been produced by Yash Raj Films’ digital division, Yash Raj Entertainment.
The four-episode series boosts its credibility by contrasting archival footage and photographs of the time with near-accurate reconstructions. A major dramatic and visual influence is the American series Chernobyl, about the nuclear reactor explosion in Russia in 1986.
Poddar has worked on several high-profile films and shows, most recently Pathaan, Satyaprem Ki Katha, School of Lies, Dream Girl 2 and P.I. Meena. The 52-year-old technician counts The Railway Men as one of his most ambitious and fulfilling projects.
Indeed, one of the major attractions of The Railway Men is Poddar’s skill in designing sets and dressing up locations to match the actual sites with remarkable fidelity.
The major sets include the Union Carbide plant from where the lethal methyl isocyanate gas escaped and the slum beyond the factory’s gates that bore the brunt of the catastrophic leak. The most important location is Bhopal Junction itself, the centre of much of the action as well as the centrepiece of Poddar’s efforts.
In a shining example of the make-believe involved in creating on-screen verisimilitude, the railway station was conjured up out of thin air.
“The first attempt by the producers was to look for a real railway station since it’s unheard to build it from scratch,” Poddar said. “What you would normally do is find a location and take permissions.”
But the train engines that were being used in the 1980s were no longer available. Even the design of the railway coaches was different, down to the size of the windows, Poddar pointed out. Bhopal Junction itself had been modernised, as had been other stations that could have stood in for the real thing.
Poddar and Shiv Rawail had previously been involved in a film that didn’t take off. For The Railway Men, which couldn’t cut corners given its premiere on a prestigious international streaming service, the only option was to create Bhopal Junction from scratch.
“The station is the heart of the story,” Poddar said. “I told Shiv that I have made trains in the past, but I will now build a whole station. Fortunately, Adi sir [the head of Yash Raj Films] isn’t the type to compromise.”
Poddar’s previous credits include the films Barfi!, Jagga Jasoos and the YRF production Gunday, all of which feature locomotives of differing vintage. “We have a back catalogue in making trains,” Poddar said.
There’s a professional hack involved in making fake trains look real, Poddar revealed: “We use something that fits inside the engine. For example, for Barfi!, we put the shell of a steam engine over a Maruti 800 car.”
Gunday needed a steam engine, but only a diesel engine was available. “We fabricated a steam engine that we put on top of the diesel engine,” Poddar said. “That was a big task, since the train actually had to move on the tracks.”
The Railway Men was far more challenging in terms of scale. “We built the length of a platform, measuring at least 600 feet, on a seven-acre ground in Mumbai,” Poddar said. “We also built two platforms facing one other, the electric junction box, the station master’s cabin, and the railway administrative blocks.” A smaller platform at which the trains didn’t stop but passed through was also built.
The props used across the series were sourced as well as fabricated. “I once smuggled two 8mm movie cameras from a pawn shop in Africa, so I have a lot of things lying with me,” Poddar said. “But the world is so big, you can’t have everything. While we found a lot of stuff like radios, clocks and decorative props related to homes and offices, the props related to the trains and the engines were completely built by us.”
Indian Railways officials who were advising the production were immensely helpful in ensuring accuracy, Poddar pointed out. “They told us about things that we could not have known, like the clutch pedal, for which there are no readily available photographs.”
The station took nearly two months to build. Seven locomotives were used, which includes two trains that are making their way to Bhopal as well as an engine in a repair shed that is pressed into action.
The fake trains were mounted on top of large tempos. “The engine cabin of the tempo was entirely dismantled, the driver sat in the front, and there was a hole in the train so that he could look ahead,” Poddar said.
He recalls the moment when R Madhavan, playing a rebellious Railways official who contributes to the rescue mission, saw one of the fabricated trains chugging out of the station. “Madhavan said, I am getting goose bumps, how is this happening? It was nostalgic to see an old engine from 1984.”
Poddar grew up in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. An alumnus in Fine Arts from the city’s Lalit Kala Sansthan, Poddar had visited Bhopal several times during his formative years.
The research included studying photographs and footage of the industrial disaster. A recce to the actual Union Carbide factory, which hasn’t been demolished yet, yielded the dimensions of the tank from which methyl isocyanate leaked on that fateful night.
The exteriors of a factory in Karad in Maharashtra stood in for the Union Carbide plant. The interiors were sets, designed to match the original as well as reflect the series’s grim look.
“We stuck to a scheme of cold colours,” Poddar said. “The palette ran from blues through greens until the end of yellow where it is almost greenish. Red was used only in one scene, where there is a wedding. Even the costumes were colour-coded. We wanted to achieve a look that complemented the cinematography and the lighting.”
Computer-generated effects aided the overall production design, helping fill in details that were either difficult or too expensive to create.
“Visual effects can be extremely helpful – what you need is proper vision, rather than technology or budgets,” Poddar said. “You have to know when to stop and how much to do. Take the night scenes in which the gas is leaking. We could have used artificial smoke, but visual effects were more effective.”