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Light at the end of tunnel is a train!

Updated on: 22 November,2023 04:49 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

Why The Railway Men, Yashraj’s sparkling OTT debut on Netflix, deserves a more direct call to action

Light at the end of tunnel is a train!

Solid debutant director Shiv Rawail’s Railway Men is advertised as “the untold story of Bhopal 1984”

Mayank ShekharTo think of it, a place where so much was going wrong in George Orwell’s ominous 1984 has to be North India, isn’t it? A burning Punjab, Operation Blue Star, PM Indira Gandhi’s assassination, followed by anti-Sikh riots, and Bhopal Gas Tragedy to wrap that year with 15,000-plus dead bodies.

Netflix series, The Railway Men (RM), merges the last two man-made tragedies over a single sequence, where murderous goons are going after a Sikh woman (Mandira Bedi) and boy, inside Gorakhpur Express train. 

Which, in turn, is headed towards Bhopal, on the same night of Dec 2, 1984, when fatal methyl isocyanate, “liquid dynamite” or “tabaahi with a drop of water”, leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Madhya Pradesh’s capital. 

I don’t know if that synchronous bit is “inspired by true events”, or indeed a true event. Either way, solid debutant director Shiv Rawail’s RM is advertised as “the untold story of Bhopal 1984”. 

Much like the last film I watched on an OTT, Pippa (on Amazon Prime Video), likewise “the untold story of a war-hero”—while based on the protagonist’s memoir itself! 

Unless such assertions relate to how the story hasn’t been told on film/series. And that, ideally, should be true for all content, no? Why will you tell a story again, anyway!

Scribes have reported extensively on Bhopal Gas Tragedy, including top photojournalists. Some of whose works have been cleverly showcased over a scene in RM. 

In popular non-fiction, there’s always Dominique Lapierre, Javier Moro’s Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (2001). Reportedly, Oliver Stone was once meant to film this book. 

Here’s the difference between RM and couple of films on the same subject. The last one I caught, Ravi Kumar’s Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain (2014)—it seemed like Martin Sheen, Mischa Barton, Kal Penn, got conned into a laudably intentioned shoddiness, somehow. 

The first was Mahesh Mathai’s Bhopal Express (1999), debut as lead actor for Kay Kay Menon, who also headlines RM. Both those films inherently felt as if educating the western world about Bhopal Gas Tragedy per se. 

The mini-series RM, with convincing characters/cameos, production design and performances, tells a story. So tight that you sense a slap on your face, every few frickin’ minutes. But you follow an inspiring plot. Whether that story is “untold” or not then is beside the point. 

Over four snappy episodes, the show goes inside the Union Carbide plant, sure, but more so, focusses on Bhopal Junction (railway station)—opening up the narrative to a wider politics of negligence, complicity, statist and corporate red-tape. In that vein, it reminded me a li’l of the HBO masterpiece, Chernobyl (2019). 

It doesn’t surprise me that RM is the OTT debut for Bombay’s biggest studio, Yash Raj Films (with Aditya & Uday Chopra as executive producers)—otherwise associated with Bollywood’s big-scale actioners/romances. The story-telling doesn’t change, right? As in, the point being to hold the audience’s attention, foremost, obviously. 

Yash Raj attempted an ‘HBO moment’ for Indian television back in 2010, with out of the (idiot) box shows, chiefly, the Pankaj Tripathi starrer, Powder. Sadly, TV audiences, as they say, weren’t ready. The dream died at five shows for Sony. 

OTT, a few years later, allowed for a darker, deeper engagement, world-class content, even relooking at famous events with a fresher lens. RM on Bhopal Gas Tragedy is, hence, only in line with deep-dive Netflix series on Nirbhaya rape (Delhi Crime) or Uphaar Cinema tragedy (Trial by Fire). 

One of the things you notice about RM is the widest cast of male, Muslim characters, who aren’t goons, dons, or terrorists. Unlike, say, the ghastly Mumbai Meri Jaan (on Prime Video), where Kay Kay Menon (among other actors) was the only good thing about it.

Isn’t that true for Menon, in general. It’s more heartening then to observe Babil Khan as the young Bhopali in RM. You can tell, for the first time, perhaps—he’s uniquely blessed with his father Irrfan’s genes. Which isn’t to compare. Nobody should. 

Neither should one take anything away from actors Divyenndu (playing a robber) and Sunny Hinduja (journalist). Once they survive the tragedy, the former tells the latter that Bhopal didn’t suit him much. It’s a great city, your timing was screw-all, the journalist tells him. True. 

Bhopal remains possibly the loveliest Indian state capital still. Only the scars of 1984 haven’t been erased yet. As The Guardian report, date-lined June 14, 2023, weighs in way stronger—the American Union Carbide plant remains as is, where it was, continuing to fatally contaminate the ground beneath it. 

Two lakh people were first affected. The effects haven’t ceased. All details shrouded in secrecy. The tragedy got no closure. Literally, all culprits got away. 

RM begins with stating the irony of how Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the world blind”, but his own assassin was hanged to death. Never mind that the quote is from the film Gandhi (1982), rather than Mahatma Gandhi himself! 

RM should’ve ended with unabashedly demanding accountability, even if late—on a legit, global show, going to 200 countries, through an American platform. It’s been almost 40 years for Bhopal’s victims. This has to be the conversation-starter. That’s the point, isn’t it?

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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