Untold stories of unsung heroes can be tricky. They are often susceptible to exaggeration because they allow the creators to be flexible with fact while being “inspired by true events”. Getting the balance right is of the essence. Parts – mind you, only parts and not the whole – of The Railway Men, a four-part Netflix show, struggle a touch on that count.
Produced by YRF Entertainment, directed by debutant Shiv Rawail and written by Aayush Gupta, the limited series forages for drama in the unspeakable Bhopal gas tragedy of December 2-3, 1984 and the response to it by resource-strapped officials on duty at the city’s beleaguered railway station.
That fateful night, as Bhopal residents went about their lives, death crept in upon them. The Union Carbide pesticides factory in their midst spewed methyl isocyanate (MIC), a lethal gas that took a heavy toll.
It was a disaster foretold by an investigative journalist whose fictional avatar (played by Kal Penn in the 2014 film Bhopal – A Prayer for Rain) is solidly fleshed out in The Railway Men by Sunny Hinduja.
The persistent journo who follows his leads with exceptional diligence and repeatedly exposes the American firm’s lackadaisical approach to safety is the only major non-railway man in this tale of courage in the face of death and destruction.
The Railway Men freely crisscrosses two parallel tracks – the real and the fictional – without divulging the points of departure or overlap. It is apparent that most of the key characters in the series are modelled on actual people who were in the thick of the action that night and (in some cases) survived to tell the tale.
One major exception is a conman (Divvyendu Sharma) who commits robberies on trains and at railway stations. He is an extraneous invention whose purpose is to add a conflict between morality and expediency and trigger a tussle between two poles of humanity.
At one end of this faceoff is a thieving opportunist caught in two minds when saving lives assumes paramount importance even as he has nefarious plans up his sleeves. On the other is a conscientious, unwavering stationmaster who pulls out the stops in the face of an unprecedented crisis.
The latter is the battle-scarred “railway man” Iftekhar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon, brilliant), who puts his life on the line to protect as many people as he can from the danger lurking in the air. He is one character we are genuinely invested in because his acts are completely self-effacing, informed as they are with the sole intention of doing his job. He is a hero who does not see himself as one – an attribute that elevates him.
Not too different is rookie loco pilot Imad Riaz (Babil Khan, a chip off the old block who is at the same time distinctly inflected in a role who completely merges himself with). He is another reluctant hero. He has inside knowledge of Union Carbide’s negligent practices, having transported barrels of MIC to the factory during his stint there as a truck driver.
Rati Pandey (R. Madhavan), a senior railway official who is under a cloud for an unspecified act that has cost him his job, appears cast in a dissimilar mould. He is the grandstanding type, the speechifier out to stir a listless workforce into action. Both the character and the performance stay stranded in an unexceptional zone.
The journalist echoes the real-life scribe who worked with whistleblowers to lay bare the loss-making factory’s constant and criminal flouting of safety rules. Imad is his principal source of information because the young man was once an insider and has reason to chip away at Union Carbide.
The American head of the Carbide plant (British actor Philip Rosch) is the solitary bad guy, a repository of all manner of corporate skullduggery. He cavalierly plays down the risk that the MIC in the factory’s tanks poses and, when disaster strikes, unashamedly attempts a cover-up.
The context of the story that The Railway Men narrates has been well-documented. It is the ‘untold’ part of the saga that takes the show beyond the familiar. As it follows the consequences of the tragedy, the series has more than its share of moments that linger. Why, then, does it leave one you feeling that it could have had more? Difficult to put a finger on it.
Primarily owing to actors mindful of the realistic vein of the recreation of an industrial disaster that occurred four decades ago, The Railway Men is in never in danger of galloping out of control. However, given the multiplicity of characters that swarm the narrative canvas, too many of them, especially the women, are summarily crowded out.
The daughter of a Bhopal station cleaning woman (Sunita Rajwar) is in the middle of her wedding when the gas leak occurs. Imad’s mother (Nivedita Bhargava) isn’t seen or heard beyond a couple of stray scenes. Two pregnant women, one the widow (Annapurna Soni) of Carbide factory worker who died on the job, the other another employee’s wife (Bhumika Dube) – have more footage but without either of them coming anywhere near upstaging the men.
Juhi Chawla is cast as a senior railway officer who is the only woman in an emergency meeting that is convened when the Bhopal tragedy threatens to run out of hand.
The focus of the series is on a male quintet, which leaves little room for the women in and around their lives to emerge from a high-density storyline that tends to occasionally wilt under its own weight.
The Railway Men has several other male characters who receive some play as the gas leak turns into a full-fledged catastrophe. Raghubir Yadav is a train guard who defends a Sikh woman (Mandira Bedi) and her son against a band of rioters.
Dibyendu Bhattacharya, playing Union Carbide factory foreman Kamruddin, and Shrikant Verma, as Bhopal railway station staffer Ishwar Prasad, make strong impressions in appearances that deserved more footage.
The men are faced with multiple challenges. They have to stop a passenger train with thousands aboard from reaching Bhopal Junction, hurriedly plan a relief train from Itarsi to the stricken city and mop up resources to run a train that could get hundreds of people out of the affected area.
There is understandably no dearth of drama in <i>The Railway Men</i>, which inevitably alludes to the anti-Sikh riots of a few months earlier – a TV grab of Rajiv Gandhi’s “when a big tree falls…” speech makes it into the series – and to the acts of omission and commission that caused the tragedy and then allowed the wrongdoers to go scot-free.
The Railway Men rounds off its voiceover introduction with something to the effect that we live in a country where culprits go unpunished and heroes remain unrewarded, a statement made without any sort of nuance that would suggest that the truism does not pertain only to the past and may hold validity to this day.
The Railway Men is buoyed by a clutch of laudable performances and storytelling that does not slide below a certain level of competence. But it could have been much, much more.
Kay Kay Menon, R Madhavan, Divyendu Sharma, Babil Khan, Juhi Chawla