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Had such a tragedy occurred anywhere else in the world, there would have been dozens of films made on it, but the world’s largest industrial disaster, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, has been curiously missing from our cinema, but for a couple of middling films. That YRF should make a serious web show on that horrible time in Bhopal is heartening.
Shiv Rawail makes an assured debut as director and co-writer (with Aayush Gupta) on The Railway Men: The Untold Story of Bhopal 1984 (Netflix), that looks at the lethal gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, from the point of view of Railway employees, who went way beyond the call of duty to save lives. The taut script introduces the characters with brisk economy before throwing them in the midst of unimaginable calamity.
The ignoring of safety norms by the management of Union Carbide and untrained workers, caused the leak of the highly toxic MIC gas from the pesticide factory that ought not to have been located in the heart of the city. With typical First World apathy, the company decided it was the Indian government’s job to look after their own. But when the crisis occurred, government officials were caught up in bureaucratic nitpicking.
There are many people who play crucial part in the film, but the four-part show focuses on four—Iftekaar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon), the station master of the busy Bhopal Junction, Rati Pandey (R.Madhavan), GM of Central Railway, Imad Riaz (Babil Khan), a worker new on the railways job, but with an inside track on Union Carbide management, and an unnamed thief (Divyenndu Sharma), who had come to burgle the station safe, but stayed back to help. Imad had already given details to a journalist, Jagmohan Kumawat (Sunny Hinduja), and it was, in fact, a journalist, Rajkumar Keswani, who had first sounded the alarm about the possible risks that the factory management was concealing.
In December 1984, life at the station was normal, Siddiqui was expecting a group of pilgrims, so went to work on his off-duty day, his assistant ordered a communications lockdown to carry out repairs, a female employee’s daughter was getting married, a Union Carbide foreman’s wife was expecting a baby, two homeless kids were belting out songs at the station.
Then people started falling down—their eyes and lungs affected by the gas; first there was confusion and then widespread panic, as people attempted to leave the city. Siddiqui was handicapped by the communications lines being down, desperate to pacify a hostile crowd, as well as trying to stop a crowded train from entering Bhopal and into certain death. The thief, in the guise of a police constable is caught in the melee, pulled in by the station master to aid him in controlling the crowd and helping the victims.
The show combines horror, suspense and a drama of courage and selflessness. Railway employees rally around to help gas victims, some of them at the cost of their own lives. Rawail brings in the Sikh genocide (that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination) through the subplot of a woman (Mandira Bedi) escaping a mob with her child only to find killers boarding the train looking for Sikhs. A brave guard on the train (Raghuvir Yadav) stands in the way of the armed hoodlums.
The Railway Men portrays a compassionate India that may no longer exist in that state of innocence. Fine performances all round—Kay Kay Menon is outstanding—and wonderful period recreation of a time before computers and cell phones. This is not a show to be watched for entertainment, but for understanding how ordinary people are capable of extraordinary heroism.The greater tragedy was the delay and denial of justice to the residents of Bhopal and the exoneration of Warren Anderson, the man at whose door the buck stopped.
The Railway Men
Directed by Shiv Rawail
Cast: Kay Kay Menon, R. Madhavan, Babil Khan, Divyenndu Sharma and others