The Railway Men is a compelling watch; the subject is handled with seriousness and respect without going overboard with the dramatic impact, observes Mayur Sanap.
In the opening stretch of debutant Director Shiv Rawail's riveting The Railway Men, a character ruefully remarks: 'Ek aam aadmi ki keemat kafi sasti hain iss desh mein (A common man's life is of meagre value in this country).'
The four-part series is a dramatised retelling of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy which killed thousands of people while harming countless others for life in one of the world's worst industrial disasters.
For a tragedy that caused such mayhem, the perpetrators got away without any repercussions.
The set-up is similar to Ravi Kumar's 2014 film Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain, but this show goes beyond the event itself and delves into psychological response to the disaster by following the various lives and stories at the centre of the tragedy.
Much like Mumbai Diaries, where the doctors are shown at the focal point of chaos, the lens here is fixated on the heroic acts of Indian Railways employees.
'Pandrah hazaar jaane lene wale ko kya milta hain? (What does one get for killing 15,000 lives?)'
We hear this from the same sombre voice highlighting the aftermath of real life horror experienced by lakhs of people in the years that followed. With this one question, the series becomes the social and political critique of the horrors caused by capitalism and corporate wrongdoing.
Chairman Madsen (Philip Rosch) is a wily businessman who is put in charge of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. The US-based pesticide company is a loss-making proposition and the high-rankers refuse to allocate any more funds for the necessary maintenance of the plant.
Jagmohan Kumawat (Sunny Hinduja, a character modelled after the late journalist Rajkumar Keswani) is a whistle-blower investigating fatal flaws in the safety protocols of the plant and warns the people through his local paper.
A senior manager in plant (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) detects the looming danger and contributes to Jagmohan's research against the company.
Tragedy strikes as highly toxic methyl isocyanate gas escapes from the plan and in no time, the entire town starts suffocating.
We get a specific view of terror unfolding in the city at Bhopal junction where a station master Iftekaar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon), locomotive pilot Imad Riaz (Babil Khan), and a police officer (Divyendu Sharma) rise up to the occasion and work in tandem to save the stranded passengers while facing the danger themselves. Their endeavour is to stop a Bhopal bound train which is carrying hundreds of people.
The nearby station has a senior Railways officer Rati Panday (R Madhavan) and his crew trying to get hold of the situation and send urgent medical aid to Bhopal. The communication lines are off and they are racing against time to avoid further mayhem.
Aayush Gupta's screenplay invites us right into dread and fear which plays out like a horror flick. The pain-induced cries, piled-up dead bodies, visuals of green hues depicting the gas hovering over the town, stressed out and sleepless survivors induce anxiety, horror and sadness all rolled into one.
At times, Director Rawail collegiates real-life footage with reel shots that emphasises the grim reality. The gravity of certain moments is so intense that it just gets quite difficult to watch. But that's precisely makes it a must-watch.
The period that the series depicts feels authentic, thanks to Rajat Poddar's production design which stays truthful to history whilst always creating the right atmosphere on screen.
Cameraman Rubais' visceral shots and Sam Slater's palpitating music further heighten the tension.
The show features a stacked cast and the acting is first-rate.
Kay Kay Menon steers the drama as a man putting in valiant efforts under dire circumstances. The show also gets into the personal trials of his character. Iftekaar is being haunted by flashbacks of a train mishap where he fails to save a child passenger. So, when another catastrophe arrives, his heroism is not merely a moment where he rises up to do something right, it is his chance at redemption.
Babil Khan as a new-on-the-job young lad shares a pupil-like equation with Kay Kay Menon's station senior, and his character benefits significantly from his inherent sincerity as an actor.
Divyendu Sharma is crackling as a grifter in police disguise, and his one-liners provide unexpected respite during heavy proceedings.
R Madhavan appears only by the end of episode two, and he owns the screen with his commanding presence. There's a classic big speech moment where his Rati makes impassioned plea to his colleagues in joining him for rescue mission. Juhi Chawla appears in a brief role and she lights up the screen in a do-gooder act.
The story weaves in several sub-plots into the narrative, but not all of it lands well. For example, since it is 1984 we also see the aftermath of Indira Gandhi assassination, but the track featuring Mandira Bedi's Sikh woman being subjected to a furore on a moving train feels jarring. The way her character abruptly disappears further adds to clumsiness of this stretch.
Sunny Hinduja's idealist journalist shows promise in the beginning but his character gets sidelined as the show progresses. A little bit of back-story would have made this character a standout, but we barely get a sense of who this person is besides his truth-seeking mission.
The Railway Men is a compelling watch because the subject is handled with seriousness and respect without going overboard with the dramatic impact. And dare I say, all of this is very entertaining.
The Railway Men streams on Netflix.