"The earth was soaked in blood [from earlier displacements], but people still came here. They thought it wouldn't happen to them," says another
Chernobyl, the HBO series currently streaming on Hotstar, based on the story of the world's worst nuclear accident, is a fascinating watch, hanging somewhere between disaster film and political exposé. At first, it is difficult to see — horror, powerlessness, dread paralyse us. We struggle along with the characters, as they grapple with a seemingly insurmountable crisis. It feels primeval — nature, technologised, but still, nature, versus human hubris.
We are similarly helpless and transfixed, as the culture of secrecy and lies that came to typify the Soviet Union unfolds, exacerbating the crisis, swallowing the lives of its own citizens. Chernobyl succeeds most in this respect — telling an engrossing historical tale as a way to meditate on nationhood.
All nations have myths about themselves, which they tell and retell through various narratives and versions. In one version, dams are temples, in another version, temples are dams. As Gorbachev says in one scene, "Our power lies in the perception about that power." We know though that these notions of nations are often sustained by the bodies of many who toil and die in maintaining this idea. This life at the cost of others' deaths is cyclical — "soldiers, famines, wars" as one character says. "The earth was soaked in blood [from earlier displacements], but people still came here. They thought it wouldn't happen to them," says another.
This plays out in a brilliant, compact scene. A minister commands some coal miners to dig around the reactor. They refuse, knowing what it means to go to Chernobyl. But they go, knowing they have little choice. As they file past the minister, each miner sardonically pats his body, slowly covering his suit in coal dust. "Now you look like the Minister of Coal," they say. It immediately calls up the thought of Swachh Bharat photo-ops versus the working conditions and constant deaths of conservancy workers. And, as you learn about the causes of the disaster, it is hard not to think about Koodankalum.
But the series disappoints when it does not expand to examine the co-dependence of competing global ideas of nationhood, allowing little else to enter the hermetic period world of 1980s USSR.
Stories that favour realism often make a moral claim about truth as a higher power. Chernobyl is no exception, ending with a somewhat vague and intoning declaration that the truth will always get us in the end. But, truth is not a morality tale of heroes and villains, which is the direction that the storytelling drives the narrative in.
In life, the aftermath of Chernobyl — death and radioactive destruction — is horrific, but also confounding. People who should have died in a day still live, have children.
Nature seems to be regenerating in unpredictable ecological ways, without humans around. In the story, too, we see how people can be, as a horrific result of power systems, casually violent for their own survival. Yet, they also seem to rise above the system, or squirrel under it, as if regenerating another, kinder 'self', reshaping their ecosystem, as much as being shaped by it People acting against their self-preservation is heroic in propaganda with its singular truths. In stories and life though, it is more a meditative mystery, suggesting that if anything, the human insistence that there is only one truth, is what gets us all in the end.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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