Aditya Chopra’s Yash Raj Entertainment has struck gold with their debut fiction series The Railway Men, which has been trending at No.1 on Netflix’s top 10 TV shows since its release. The four-episode limited series is based on the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy that left more than 15,000 people dead.
Shiv Rawail, who served as an assistant director in Fan (2016) and Dhoom 3 (2013), weaves together the stories of a Bhopal station master, a railway official, a young railway engineer and a thief who get together to avert a catastrophe at the Bhopal railway station, drawing inspiration from true events.
The series opens with a mosaic of historical footage, newspaper clips and a compelling voiceover that sets the stage for the impending tragedy while providing some understanding of the socio-political atmosphere in Bhopal in the mid-’80s.
The focus then shifts to the carbide chemical factory in Bhopal, where inadequate training of the workers and malfunctioning of safety measures lead to a lethal gas leak, exposing the city to methyl isocyanate. Communication lines collapse and the city gets isolated as more and more areas begin to be wrapped in the deadly gas.
Cut to Bhopal railway station. Station master Iftekaar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon) is an upright man who loves his job but is tormented by memories of a child he couldn’t save during an accident. He has taken under his wing Imad Riaz (Babil Khan), a young railway worker with a knack for engineering.
On that particular day, Balwant Yadav, a thief known as Express Bandit (Divyenndu Sharma), turns up at the station posing as a Railway Protection Force officer with the plan to rob the station’s coffers. In the midst of all this, R. Madhavan makes a casual appearance as Rati Pandey, the General Manager of Central Railways. When the gas leaks and people drop dead like flies on the streets, these men team up to rescue those trapped in Bhopal railway station and save as many lives as possible.
The Railway Men boasts stellar performances by every member of the ensemble cast. The young Babil Khan stands tall in this league of seasoned actors, his expressive eyes conveying the deep love for his family and his determination to survive.
Kay Kay Menon — who had previously played a Union Carbide factory worker in the 1999 film Bhopal Express — is another scene-stealer with his heartfelt portrayal of a station master. Madhavan comes across as a bit subdued as the general manager of Central Railways, although he and Juhi Chawla (in the role of honest bureaucrat Rajeshwari Jangla) effectively channel their star power to lift the narrative. Divyenndu adds a dramatic touch as the thief with a good heart.
Comparisons to the HBO series Chernobyl are inevitable, given The Railway Men’s deep dive into the causes and consequences of a man-made disaster. The YRF Entertainment series adopts a more subdued approach, steering clear of melodrama to keep the focus on portraying the enormity of the incident. But there are plenty of peripheral characters involving tangential plotlines that sometimes veer from the central storyline.
While attempts to embed the series within the political milieu of the time are commendable, certain subplots, such as the depiction of Sikh genocide on a train bound for Bhopal, seem disconnected from the core narrative. This event demands a more substantial exploration and, relegated to a secondary storyline, failed to establish a coherent connection to the central gas leak disaster.