The Railway Men: Celebrating Lesser Known Heroes
A different perspective on the Bhopal gas tragedy
‘The Railway Men’ marks the OTT debut of the Aditya Chopra-Uday Chopra venture through its banner, YRF Entertainment (the streaming division of Yash Raj Films.) This four-part series is an intense, emotionally charged, dynamically narrated story drawn from real life.
It throws up an unknown perspective on how a few unsung heroes saved thousands from falling victim to the infamous Union Carbide Gas Leak tragedy in Bhopal that happened on December 2nd and 3rd 1984. Across the world, this gas leak tragedy is perhaps the worst ‘industrial genocide’ in history. It took a toll of more than 15000 lives in Bhopal.
I call it genocide, because it is a disaster that could and should have been avoided. However, the two responsible parties, the Indian Govt which owned 49% of the shares of the company while Union Carbide held 51%, did not bother about the lives of common men, women and children.
Till today, children who were born during and after the gas leak, and other survivors continue to suffer from the severe impact of the disaster. Some of these are shown in the series, years after the tragedy.
This might be labelled a ‘disaster’ genre series. Unlike natural calamities and their impact on the local people such as earthquakes, floods, famines and epidemics, this refers to a man-made tragedy which could have been avoided had the Indian Government been less greedy to allow a foreign company to manufacture pesticides in their factory without adequate prevention measures.
Also, had the American partners of Union Carbide not been so cold-blooded in curtailing their costs by going easy, in fact, too easy on safety and maintenance measures mandatory for such manufacture.
The genre came to prominence during the 1970s with the release of high-profile films such as ‘Airport’ (1970), ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972), ‘Earthquake’ (1974), ‘The Towering Inferno’ (1974). The genre experienced a renewal in the 1990s, boosted by computer-generated imagery (CGI) and large studio budgets which allowed for greater spectacle, such as the greatest box office hit of them all, ‘Titanic’ (1997)’.
Shiv Rawail who made his directorial debut with ‘The Railway Men’ has taken pains along with writer, Ayush Gupta, to draw out a few lesser-known stories hidden behind the tragedy that remained untold till this day.
A handful of men at first instinctively, and then intentionally get involved in the rescue operations. The victims of the gas leak are dying around the rescue team who are also trying to save thousands of passengers arriving at Bhopal station.
Those trains will either terminate at Bhopal, or rush towards an onward destination. The team by defying all authority is stopping the trains to prevent the passengers from alighting at Bhopal station, which would have certainly led to many more deaths.
This small, dedicated batch is led by the station master Iftekaar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon). He works round the clock trying desperately to gather the passengers in his office with long distance trains passing through, halting, or terminating at this station. He is also desperate to get in touch with the nearest stations, but communication lines at Bhopal have failed. This worries the communication officer at Itarsi as well, which is expecting a train to Bhopal to go through, with around 1000 passengers.
Another committed young man is Imad Riaz (Babil Khan) a loco man who has joined service on that day, having quit his Union Carbide job when a close friend of his died in 1981. The friend had been punished for complaining about a gas leak, and died because of the infection from the gas, leaving behind his pregnant widow and a small daughter.
The third person is a crook nicknamed Express Bandit (Divyendu Sharma), who steals everything he can lay his hands on from passengers. He arrives disguised as a policeman with the intention of robbing the station of the Rs. One crore revenue is placed inside the station master’s locked cupboard, the key to which is with Iftekaar Khan.
Jagmohan Kumawat (Sunny Hinduja) is a journalist, a character inspired by the real-life journalist Rajkumar Keswani who pursued the Union Carbide story from 1981. Keswani had written a series of articles in his own paper in the 1980s about gas leak safety issues, allegedly as a result of the compromise of the Union Carbide and the Indian Government to counter competition from competitors in the pesticides market by cutting costs.
They had reportedly been doing this since 1980-81 by not informing the workers, not training new workers in how to clean the pipes and other techniques, and allegedly by compromising dangerously on safety measures which finally led to the genocide.
Kumawat in search of his story, gets personally involved in the destinies and lives of people he has never known and puts in his all to the rescue effort. We see him even ten years following the tragedy asking victims how they are doing and whether they have received compensation or not and if yes, how much.
One affected young woman says she gets a compensation of Rs.300 per month. No guesses about what happened to the huge compensation money released by Union Carbide for affected families.
The first episode shows Kamruddin (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), head of the labour unit, concerned about the increasingly falling efficiency of the gas tanks and the lack of training among newly recruited workers. When he expresses his concern, he is pushed away by Madsen (who plays Anderson) who heads the union Carbide unit in Bhopal.
Kamruddin tells the workers to rush out when he can foresee the impact of the leak so there are fewer deaths inside the factory, than there are outside in the neighbourhood and on the railway station. He deals with his small role with extreme poignancy preparing us for the oncoming tragedy.
His wife, pregnant after many years of marriage, is happy but only for a short while. She dies of the infection after delivering a baby who grows up mentally challenged. Kamruddin, while going to check the heat on top of the tanks storing MIC gag (Methyl Isocyanate gas), becomes the first victim of the genocide. The MIC, when mixed with even a drop of water, turns to hydrogen cyanide which can kill thousands within minutes.
‘The Railway Men’ sometimes seems to burst at the seams with the high-decibel suspense of death and disaster round every corner. The soundtrack is filled with barking dogs, rushing trains, constant coughing of the infected, massive screaming, lamenting deaths, banging at doors, smashing window panes where the last nursery song sung by the weeping little boy seems not like a diversion but an intrusion.
The visuals are flush with falling bodies, people gasping for breath, dotted with the colour of a bride dressed up in red finery also waiting to die. Two small brothers who beg for alms and sing songs highlight the tragedy of a disaster when the younger one dies and the elder one holds him in his arms, singing to him the song their mother once sang to put them to sleep.
Not for a moment do the visuals turn static except when the scene shifts to Itarsi where the staff faces the anxiety of the visiting GM of Central Railways, Rati Pandey (R. Madhavan). He tries his best to try to send a rescue train to Bhopal and also stop all through trains rushing to Bhopal.
When his superiors, including Rajeshwari (Juhi Chawla) who tops the railway board try to stop him, he goes ahead with his plan placing humanity above career. The German toxicologist Alex Braun who arrives in India with several thousand anti-toxin vials, is flown back the same evening by the return flight to Germany along with the vials, unused. When Rajeshwari learns of this deliberate ‘killing’ of poor countrymen by her ministry and by the top brass of Union Carbide, she too, decides to quit.
However, there is a fictional addition of a group of anti-Sikh, fundamentalist Hindu goons who get into one of the running trains to nab and kill Sikh passengers, as their reaction to the assassination of Indira Gandhi that happened two months before this tragedy. This is the only comedown in the film which, introduced for additional drama, does exactly the opposite, and dilutes it.
Each character is carefully fleshed out, right from the station master down to the two little brothers who sing to make their daily bread. But the women are marginalised though they have done very well in their brief cameos. It is as if Juhi Chawla’s character has been introduced to add the female touch. There is a group of girls waiting to return to base following their loss in a hockey match and one of them tries to save the young bride from certain death.
The camera and the editing had a challenging task. The massive crowds posed their own challenge, making the cinematographer rush with his team from inside the stubborn engine of a stalled train into the inside of a running train, to the platforms on Bhopal station to capture men, women and children struggling. The throes of people falling dead are captured in mid-long, long and top angle shots, cutting to take a peep into the slum hutments now emptied as everyone has died, and taking the camera team to close in on the main characters trapped between commitment to save others first.
The same goes for the electrically charged editing specially the scenes in the Union Carbide factory, once filled with workers struggling with stopped clocks and alarms that have failed to work, water leaking from the tanks, the labour manager stressed out with his worry to empty the factory and save the lives of the workers. The scene then cuts to show the empty factory caught in dim light depicting the tragedy of lives stopped right in the middle of life.
The station master’s spacious room is filled with the drama of a doctor falling dead while trying to revive a victim, people thirsting for a drop of water, fighting with each other and so on. The scenes of collective burials and cremations of unclaimed and unidentified dead bodies captured in medium close shots highlight the intensity and the extent of this tragedy.
The actors are so deeply involved in their reel characters that it seems that they have internalised their roles and after a point, have become the people they are acting out. Hats off to the director Shiv Rawail for bringing to the fore the unknown stories that lay hidden till now about the happenings of the Bhopal genocide.