One of the world’s worst industrial disasters took place in Bhopal, which turned into a gas chamber when forty tonnes of methyl- isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide factory on the night of December 2, 1984. Three thousand eight hundred (figures from the National Centre of Biotechnology Information) people died immediately that night, most of whom lived in the ‘basti’ closest to the factory: this was the official figure; unofficially, the figure was several times higher.
By the next morning, streets were littered with corpses of humans and animals, and hospitals were overflowing with those suffering from burning eyes and constricted chests.
Nearly forty years on, Bhopal hasn’t fully recovered from that body blow dealt by the murderously greedy US corporation which owned the pesticide factory, and consistently refused to own up to its culpability. Equally responsible were those who turned a blind eye to the shockingly low safety standards the plant had been operating with: UCC CEO Warren Anderson who was promptly arrested upon his arrival in India soon after the leak, fled, never to return. And even after decades of legal battles, the compensation paid to the victims has remained a pittance.
Watch the trailer here:
Yashraj Films’ has chosen a weighty subject for its first web-series by giving us ‘the untold story’ of a bunch of individuals who staked their own lives to save thousands that fateful night. The opening credits says that the series ‘is a work of fiction, inspired by real events’, but there is no denying the veracity of these facts: the faulty machinery at the Carbide factory which resulted in the leak of the MIC gas, which in turn snuffed out thousands of innocent lives that night. The credits put the figure of the dead at 15,000; no source material is mentioned.
The Railway Men is about a handful of Northern Railway officials, and some aware residents, who were amongst the first to understand the gravity of the situation, and who, in the face of tremendous odds, pushed back against apathy and red tape-ism that is so much a part of a mammoth ‘sarkaari’ organisation. By dint of their effort, they showed up the Delhi babus who, instead of doing everything they could to save Bhopal, criminally wasted precious time, passing the buck and deflecting blame.
In the series, directed by Shiv Rawail and written by Aayush Gupta, Kay Kay Menon plays the stationmaster in charge of Bhopal Junction; Babil Khan is an ex-Carbide worker who is beginning his new job at the station ; Divyenndu is a crook who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time ; and R Madhavan is a top Railways official who turns his own locomotive, the GM special, into a rescue missile.
There are four episodes, each running nearly an hour. The narrative has multiple strands, cutting back and forth in time — it opens with a marriage, and the bride’s mother running short of cash at a crucial time ; a train is heading to Bhopal with a terrified Sikh family trying to escape from a bunch of killers (Indira Gandhi’s assassination had taken place just a month before, and retaliatory mobs were still on the loose); a smooth-talking con man is eyeing a trunk-full of cash in the station locker. It flashes back to 1970, with an American scientist being told to shut up about the danger of the gas: it jumps back again to the present with systems rapidly failing in the Bhopal plant, with just a few hours to go for the leak. A flash forward to 1996, with the local journalist (Sunny Hinduja) who was present that night, getting back in touch with a pregnant woman he had helped reach the hospital, is one of the most affecting scenes in the series.
The compulsion to heighten the drama forces the plot into occasional tropes — a couple of grimy young orphans (for whom the station is home) warbling a Bollywood ditty, a fearless railway guard (Rahgubir Yadav) bent upon protecting a mother (Mandira Bedi) and son from a lynch-mob, an estranged couple putting aside their differences to come together for Mission Bhopal, a climactic mournful song as the city mourns its dead. The actors playing the Americans are never convincing enough, passing off barking or ducking orders as good emoting.
But despite the writing being underlined in some parts, almost all the principal performances are solid. Kay Kay’s had experience with filming the Bhopal gas tragedy (in the 1999 feature ‘Bhopal Express’, he plays a Carbide worker who manages to save his wife’s life). He was good in that early film; here, as the stationmaster whose integrity is his most precious asset, and who marshals his meagre forces as best as he can, he is terrific. You can see a hint of awareness seeping through in Babil’s blue-collar worker who bends all his energies into doing the right thing, but he is now reliably an actor to watch out for. Madhavan’s ‘Rati Pandey, GM, Northern Railways’ is a tad flat, complementing Chawla’s honest bureaucrat Rajeshwari Jangla, but both bend their star power in service to the story. Divyenndu shines by bringing to his ‘filmi’ part — the ‘chor’ who has his ‘dil’ in the right place– just the right balance of drama and realism. And many of the supporting acts are good enough for you to wish that they had more to do.
Overall, The Railway Men is a worthy effort, which brings back an expansive, old-fashioned style of storytelling to a still-relevant event, which we are in the danger of forgetting. It also brings back memories of a syncretic India : the lethal gas did not discriminate on the basis of class, caste or religion, and those involved in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at considerable risk to themselves did not pause to ask if the person gasping for breath was Hindu or Muslim.
Have we learnt any lessons? Going by the steady depredation of our environment, and the increasing laxity of laws when it comes to power and pelf, it would appear not.
The Railway Men cast: Mandira Bedi, R Madhavan, Kay Kay Menon, Rahgubir Yadav, Divyenndu, Babil Khan
The Railway Men director: Shiv Rawail
Rating: Three stars