There are several ways to tackle a historic event—regardless of whether it was historic in a good way or a bad way—on the big screen or the small screen. If it’s a well-documented incident, news clippings, videos, and interviews can be used to make a documentary. If it’s a well-documented incident that exists only in the form of text, it can be adapted as accurately as possible in the form of a feature film, a TV show, or a miniseries. If it’s a well-documented incident, but you don’t want to make it sound like an Encyclopedia chapter, you can craft a completely fictional narrative around the event in question where the characters and the subplots are loosely based on the real-life people who were there when things went down. Now, this last option is the most popular one because it gives the storytellers a lot of creative liberty and allows them to draw in viewers on an emotional level instead of overwhelming them with facts. However, if the fictional aspect of the “true story” isn’t compelling enough, everything crumbles like a house of cards. Such is the case with the Railway Men.
Shiv Rawail’s four-part miniseries, The Railway Men, which has been written by Aayush Gupta, is set around the tragic gas leak in Bhopal that occurred at the Union Carbide company, killing thousands and crippling generation after generation of people. The lead-up to the incident and its aftermath are witnessed through the eyes of a bunch of fictional characters based on real people. There’s the journalist, Jagmohan Kumawat, who happens to be in Bhopal to investigate the malpractices happening in Union Carbide and ends up saving Kamruddin’s wife and kids. Kamruddin is one of the employees at Union Carbide who notices all the warning signs. Imad Riaz is a former employee of Union Carbide and is helping Jagmohan investigate the factory. He currently works for Station Manager Iftekaar Siddiqui at the Bhopal railway station. Also present at the station is a bandit masquerading as a constable who is there to loot money from the safe in the station manager’s office. Elsewhere, there is GM Rati Pandey, who learns about the tragedy during a routine inspection. Aboard the Gorakhpur Express, which is heading towards the poisoned Bhopal junction, there’s a case of communal violence taking place as a reaction to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, where the only person standing between the rioters and a Sikh mother and son is an ageing guard. In addition to all this, there’s DG Personnel Rajeshwari Janglay, who is trying to make the politicians take some action and save the people of Bhopal.
From the get-go, the writer of The Railway Men, Aayush Gupta, starts railing against Gandhism; he compares the treatment of politicians and the common people, and he shows how the real-life counterparts of the aforementioned characters are the unsung heroes of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Their names are set in stone at the Bhopal Railway Station. I don’t think that exactly fits the definition of “unsung.” But that’s not the real problem with the miniseries. The real problem is that much like every other movie and show about a deeply troubling topic, Gupta wants to convey the seriousness of the gas leak as well as the anti-Sikh riots that were happening during that time by being really serious about it. He thinks that showing us a bunch of characters suffering through these tragedies amounts to good storytelling. And he probably thinks that citing the past is going to motivate viewers to draw parallels with the current hell we are living through because political regimes come and go, but the common people continue to suffer. Well, none of that works because, despite taking a lot of creative liberties with the story and relying on real footage, Gupta never gives us a reason to care about any of these characters.
Before anyone comes at me with pitchforks, let me tell you that it’s not enough to just show a bunch of fictional people (based on real people) suffering because, at the end of the day, Netflix is profiting off of the trauma that the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, as well as the anti-Sikh riots, have faced. Of course, the streaming platform and the producers aren’t running a charitable firm. They are here to do business. All the “we are here to highlight the truth of what happened on that fateful day” is a bunch of nonsense. So, if you want me to forget all that and truly believe that your heart is in this story, you have to be serious about it, and The Railway Men isn’t. People are dying by the second, and Rati Pandey starts monologuing with people as if he is Idris Elba from Pacific Rim. Then, he starts romancing Rajeshwari at one point in the miniseries. The Express Bandit constantly keeps quipping and acting like he is in a Marvel movie. And all of this kills the sense of urgency of the whole ordeal and the feeling of immersion. If you have a ticking time bomb element in your narrative, you have to stick to it, or else it just seems like you are dragging out the misery of the characters because you, the writer, think that constant coughing is the same as scripting an emotional character arc.
The Railway Men look alright for the most part. The costumes, the sets, the camera work (virtual and practical) during the tense moments, the sound design—it’s all competent. But as soon as the VFX and CGI and the physical elements clash, it looks goofy as hell. Since Shiv Rawail and his team draw a lot of their inspiration for this show from one of the greatest shows based on a real-life tragedy, Chernobyl, I have to urge you to comb through Craig Mazin and his team’s work and tell me if there’s a single frame that looks off because of the VFX and the CGI. Spoiler alert: you won’t find any because the makers of Chernobyl took a lot of care to “get it right.” In the Netflix miniseries, every time the titular railway men get into a railway locomotive, it looks, for lack of a better word, cartoonish. The illusion of motion is so bad that it’ll make every director who has made a movie or a show around trains feel proud that at least they aren’t as bad as Rawail and his team. The crown jewel of VFX mishaps is the moment where Iftekaar, the Express Bandit, and others are boarding passengers into a luggage van, and unnatural black patches show up in the VFX background, most likely due to some shoddy compositing and lighting. Since I’ve seen a screener of the miniseries, I am hoping that the error is only in this early copy of the episodes, and that they’ve fixed it before publishing it on Netflix. If they don’t, well, then it’ll prove that they don’t really care about the presentation of this important story.
The performances from the cast of Railway Men are fine. Kay Kay Menon is obviously the best out of the lot. Babil Khan, Divyenndu, and R. Madhavan are really bad. They never get into the skin of their characters, especially Madhavan, who just seems to be sleepwalking through this role. I guess the last time he tried to become a character was in 2016’s Saala Khadoos, and it has been downhill since then. As expected, Sunny Hinduja is fantastic. If the makers had allowed the story to unfold entirely through his perspective while oscillating between his ordeal during the day of the incident and how he followed up on the victims of the incident, thereby highlighting how they’ve been neglected by the system, it would’ve made for a far more interesting watch. The brief moments where we do get to see Hinduja do all that are great, but unfortunately, they’re way too brief. Juhi Chawla Mehta, Mandira Bedi, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, and Raghubir Yadav are there in the show, but they aren’t memorable enough. Be prepared for a Manish Wadhwa jumpscare. He comes out of nowhere, leers at Juhi, and then just leaves. Anyway, The Railway Men pretends it’s a very serious miniseries about the Bhopal disaster and the anti-Sikh riots, even though it’s not. If you want to pretend along with it, go ahead and watch the show. If you want to actually learn about the tragedies of 1984, go through the countless documentaries and articles that have been made on the subject.