The Railway Men is inspired by true stories of Indian Railway employees who saved hundreds of lives in the aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
Director: Shiv Rawail
Cast: R Madhavan, Kay Kay Menon, Divyenndu, Babil Khan, Juhi Chawla, Mandira Bedi, Raghuvir Yadav, Dibyendu Bhattacharya
Where to watch: Netflix
Rating: 4.5 stars
What works for The Railway Men starts with its title itself. As director Shiv Rawail rightly points out, the show is not called Bhopal Gas Leak. Because it is not all about the tragedy. It is, instead, about a few good men from the Indian Railways who put their and their families’ lives on the line to save thousands trapped after the world’s worst industrial disaster turned an entire city into a gas chamber. The four-episode limited series is chilling, hard-hitting, and sensitive, punctuated with some exemplary performances and engaging sub-plots. All this comes together to make it one of the very best of 2023.
The Railway Men tells the story of three railway employees – the station master of Bhopal Junction (Kay Kay Menon), a rookie locomotive pilot (Babil Khan), and a rogue general manager (Madhavan), who find their paths inter-connected by fate on the night of December 1, 1984, when Bhopal’s Union Carbide factory leaked tons of lethal methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas. They are joined by a reluctant hero – a train bandit posing as a cop (Divyenndu), and several righteous men, ranging from a Carbide employee (Dibyendu Bhattacharya delivering one of the best performances of the year) to a brown-nosed journalist (Sunny Hinduja).
The Railway Men gets a lot right. The pacing, the setting of the story, the writing, and the execution are all near flawless. The dialogue feels natural. The looming threat of death and suffocation feels very real but never gets grotesque. The feeling of claustrophobia that the show manages to convey through the screen is commendable. One particular scene grabbed my eye. A small sequence involved one character detailing what happened to a man who was exposed to the gas. This happens in a flashback right after we see the gas leaking out into the city where millions sleep. It is a very effective way of telling the viewer what fate awaits the entire city of Bhopal. Brilliant writing and set up!
Bhopal gas tragedy is the worst industrial disaster in history. A lot of us have heard of it but very few know exactly what happened. The Railway Men does a good job in setting up the premise and the background of the disaster without going into the technicalities of it. It beautifully portrays the bureaucratic red-tap, corruption, and greed that allowed this disaster to happen but does not sermonise. And then, very swiftly, it turns it gaze to the people actually affected by it and those men and women doing everything in their power to save them.
Since the trailer released, The Railway Men has been compared to Chernobyl, another extraordinary series based on a disaster. But where the Netflix show differs is that it is essentially a rescue drama centred on the Bhopal Junction. It does not go too deep into the gas leak and Union Carbide’s role into that but it also does not shy away from calling the industrial giant out.
Aesthetically, the show wins big time. The shots of the disaster and the mayhem it caused are very well shot and scored. The melancholy never leaves the screen. The sense of dread is almost upon us. And the nervous energy, anxiety of it all remains palpable throughout. Full marks to the crew and the cinematographer for achieving that!
A few of the subplots do seem stretched. The story of Mandira Bedi’s character escaping rioters and being protected by a righteous railway guard seemed like an unnecessary distraction in the middle of what was happening elsewhere. If I didn’t know better, I would say it almost seemed like a forced angle to further paint the railway employees as heroes in all walks of life. It wasn’t badly done but the show would have been just as good without it. The focus on R Madhavan’s past and his personal life seemed unfulfilled. The makers could have either gone deeper into it or not touched it at all. But going at it half throttle made it seem half-assed.
What elevates The Railway Men above just a good show are its performances. Kay Kay Menon is at the front and centre of it all, leading the charge in the plot as well as the show’s emotional centre. The veteran actor delivers another masterclass in screen acting, reminding yet again why he is one of the best we have. Babil Khan shines through too in a well-written character that allowed him to emote and show a wide range of his talents. The boy has a bright future. Divyenndu gets a chance to get out of the Liquid and Munna Bhaiya moulds and play a real, vulnerable character for once. The actor does it with panache. In comparison, R Madhavan has less to play with but he does his job well. His character is away from the mayhem of Bhopal, a surrogate for the anxious audience and in that, the actor does a commendable job portraying our restlessness and helplessness.
But The Railway Men is as much about the support cast as it is about its leads. Case in point Dibyendu Bhattacharya. The actor appears in just one of the four episodes but leaves a mark with some of the finest acting in recent times. Sunny Hinduja shines through as well, as he does every so often. Among other strong performers are Juhi Chawla (in a cameo) and Sunita Rajwar.
The Railway Men should set a template for how to tackle real stories and make shows inspired from them, without histrionics, grandstanding, and any saviour complex. All you need to do is tell the story of real people with honest intent. A lot of our big Bollywood stars could probably learn a lot from this show!
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