The Railway Men is a new Netflix miniseries that tells the dramatic and fictionalized tale of four men associated with the Indian Railways, whose efforts saved numerous lives on the worst night of Bhopal’s history. Starring celebrated actors Kay Kay Menon and Madhavan and the younger but dynamic Divyendu Sharma and Babil Khan, the series is a crisp presentation over four hour-long episodes. While the immediate effects of the disastrous MIC gas leak in Bhopal in 1984 are more well known, The Railway Men focuses mostly on the rescue efforts conducted by individuals on the railway board. While most of the characters and some of the events in the Netflix series are fictional and dramatized, this article is strictly about the narrative shown in The Railway Men.
What was the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984?
Regarded as the worst industrial disaster in world history, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy unfolded on the night of December 2, continuing into the early hours of December 3, when a deadly gas leak occurred at the Union Carbide India Limited factory in Bhopal, the capital city of India’s Madhya Pradesh. The UCIL factory, owned by the American chemical company United Carbide Corporation, housed three tanks to store methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas that was used in manufacturing pesticides. On the night of December 2, this extremely toxic gas leaked into the air, spreading rapidly across the city of Bhopal and affecting thousands of citizens. While the death toll, as claimed in Netflix’s The Railway Men, reached 15,000, innumerable more were affected by the tragedy.
The Railway Men begins on the morning of the accident, when people start their usual day without any worry or concern. The day did not begin in the same peaceful manner for workers at the Union Carbide factory, though, as the scare of a MIC gas leak gripped the place for a few minutes. Kamruddin, the in-charge of the workers, checks the pressure and temperature gauges, both of which indicate that the tanks are about to burst open, leaking the toxic gas into the air. However, when Kamruddin goes to the site of the three underground tanks, he realizes that the situation is completely normal, with the earlier gauze readings being wrong.
Although a crisis is averted, the incident makes it evident that the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal is a ticking time bomb. Most low-level workers who run and maintain the place have no idea about the safety protocols to be maintained. Many of the crucial gauzes and instruments used for measurement lie in a faulty state, as there has been no maintenance. The flare tower, from where unwanted gas can be released and burned to avoid any full-fledged gas leak, has been inoperative for the last three months. The current manager, an American named Madsen, is least interested in doing anything against these safety protocol breaches, and this disinterest is also shared by the higher UCC authorities. The comparatively low demand for MIC fertilizers in India has resulted in poor financial results for the Bhopal factory, due to which it is grossly neglected by the company authorities.
Therefore, when the situation gets terribly out of control that night, there is hardly anything left to do for the workers inside. Some of the pipes were being serviced with water without any necessary safety precautions since the workers were never educated about these steps. This water managed to enter the E610 tank containing the MIC gas, which becomes volatile when in contact with water. This resulted in the temperature and pressure inside the tank increasing greatly, which ultimately led to a pipe bursting open and releasing the gas into the air. Kamruddin bravely manages to shut off the other tanks from causing a similar accident, and he loses his life in the process, being exposed to the toxic fumes that can choke and kill in minutes. Over the next few hours, the MIC gas spreads all over Bhopal, and common people have to fight against an unseen enemy that is present in the very air that is being breathed.
Who are the four heroic railwaymen?
The story of the four titular railway men begins with the Station Master of Bhopal Junction, Iftekaar Siddiqui, an honest and upright government employee who always stands up for the well-being of citizens. Iftekaar has a tragic past, for the man had been in a horrific train accident some ten years ago, during which he had failed to save a young boy from death. A ticket checker at the time, Iftekaar had to protect himself before reaching out to the boy, and in a split second, the child fell to his death. This memory still haunts the man to this day, but his love for the railways still remains intact to this day. Some, including his own son, see the man as an unambitious servant of the government railway authority, but to many employees and passengers, Iftekaar is like a protective guardian figure. On the night of the gas leak, the man ensures to pay a visit to the wedding ceremony of an employee’s daughter, but he is also careful to return in time for the safe passage of the night trains. As the communication wires at Bhopal junction are in a faulty state at the time, Iftekaar pushes his subordinate, Prasad, to get the repairs done at the earliest possible time so that there is no unwanted delay in case some emergency arises.
Next in line is a young man named Imad Riaz, who is currently looking for employment at the junction station. Imad meets with the station master, and after successfully figuring out that the communication lines are down, he manages to secure a temporary job at the railyard. Imad is already aware of the dangerous possibilities at the Union Carbide factory, for he was earlier a truck driver at the company. The young man used to transport barrels of MIC gas from the Trombay port to the factory in Bhopal and had often felt the dangerous effects of the fumes whenever rainwater seeped into the barrels. Imad had raised his voice against the lack of safety, especially when a worker named Mohammed Ansari lost his life due to a MIC gas leak incident. Ansari was like an elder brother to Imad, and following the man’s death, Imad had even taken up the responsibility of his wife and two young children. However, the protests had only gotten Imad fired from the job, making him look for any meagre work at the railway station to earn a livelihood for his family.
The third central character to appear in The Railway Men is more of an anti-hero named Balwant Yadav, better known as the Express Bandit. A criminal mastermind had been robbing and looting express trains for thirteen straight years without ever getting caught, and the media had named this elusive robber the Express Bandit. Balwant, who is the real criminal, is also a low-level constable of the Railway Police Force (RPF), and he uses inside information to track any large amount of money being transported and then uses the railway network to reach the place and steal the money. As Balwant faces some heat from the police after recently robbing a minister, he has to focus on places other than express trains, and the man gets to know of a fat amount of money being stored at the station master’s office in Bhopal junction. Unaware of what is about to transpire in the next few hours, Balwant reaches the station in Bhopal on the night of the 2nd and pretends to be an RPF constable sent specifically to catch the Express Bandit.
The fourth and last hero in the show is the General Manager of Central Railways, Rati Pandey, who is first seen at Itarsi junction, some 100 km away from Bhopal. The GM arrives for a surprise inspection at the junction when he stumbles across an emergency situation in which the authorities at the Bhopal junction could not be reached for a couple of hours. Although the communication lines at Bhopal were supposed to be up by now, the station was completely silent on the railway communication system, which is extremely unusual and alarming. As soon as Rati learns of this radio silence, he gets in touch with the higher authorities and finds out what has really happened. By this time, the gas had leaked and spread over the city, killing and maiming thousands already.
How do the four men respond to the emergency?
Since the Indian railway system is one of the most well-connected networks in the world and is used by millions of passengers daily, any incident that directly affects it is sure to cause utter chaos. Thus, when the leaked gas from the Union Carbide factory reached the Bhopal junction station, even in the late hours of the night, hundreds of people immediately fell sick because of it. To make matters worse, the Gorakhpur-Bombay Express was heading straight towards Bhopal, carrying thousands of passengers who would get exposed to the gas. With respect to the railway authorities in Bhopal Jn., two steps were of utmost necessity—to inform the Gorakhpur-Bombay Express about the accident so that the train would stop from entering the station and then to find some means of respite for the suffering passengers at the station and in the city by making use of the railway network.
Iftekaar and Balwant realize at the same time that people outside their covered office room are dying from the effects of the gas, and the station master immediately rushes them inside the closed room, which is safer than the outside. Around the same time, Imad arrives at the place aboard a repaired train engine from the railyard. When people started to fall sick at the railyard, Imad immediately understood what was causing this situation, as the young man had been working closely with a local journalist, Jagmohan Kumawat, trying to expose the Union Carbide Corporation’s negligence with the MIC gas. While Iftekaar and Imad now set out to fix the communication line, Balwant has to stay back and control the crowd, who are still panic-stricken. Iftekaar tries to contact the Sukhi Sewaniya station, which is right before Bhopal on the Gorakhpur-Bombay Express route, in order to stop the train there. However, due to the communication lines still not being fully repaired, his words do not reach through.
Back at Itarsi, Rati Pandey gets news of this failed communication effort, and he checks in with the higher authorities to learn about the tragic accident at Bhopal. He immediately calls for the express train to be halted at Sukhi Sewaniya, but the order reaches the station late. The Railway Men also includes some contemporary socio-political events, the primary of which is the targeted attacks against Sikhs after the Indira Gandhi assassination. The signal guard of the express train has to protect a Sikh woman and her son from a group of rioters, and therefore, he misses the red flag waved by the guard at Sukhi Sewaniya. Realizing that the railway network must be used to bring in medical supplies and other aid to Bhopal, Rati contacts the upper-level ministers through his ex-partner and Director General, Rajeshwari Janglay. Both Rati and Rajeshwari tried their best to convince the ministers to use trains to supply aid and assistance to Bhopal at this time of need. But the decision-makers are of a different opinion, and all trains are ordered to be halted away from Bhopal.
Rati Pandey is convinced that he cannot leave so many people to helplessly die in Bhopal, and he now uses his GM special train to go towards the city, while a number of railway workers immediately agree to join him. Rati’s intentional disobedience against the ministry orders also inspires other staff members in the network close to Bhopal, and they, too, start their journey towards the city for relief missions. Meanwhile, Iftekaar calls for a makeshift train to be built with spare mail train carriages from the railyard, and the suffering people in the station are boarded onto these empty carriages. Imad now attempts to drive the train away, but this plan fails as the engine suddenly malfunctions.
What happens to the four men at the end?
The four heroic men finally succeed in saving passengers, starting with the arrival of the Gorakhpur-Bombay express train to Bhopal junction’s platform no. 1. Now that the train has indeed arrived, Iftekaar helps people get on it, and more passengers suddenly emerge from the outside, hoping to escape the city’s toxic air aboard the train. Iftekaar and Balwant help the people onto the carriages while also trying to stop passengers from getting off at the station. All of this has to be done within a very short time, in order to avoid any major sickness from the gas among the passengers. In the process, Iftekaar loses consciousness in the stampede, and he is considered dead. It is only on the next day, as the man is about to be cremated that Iftekaar suddenly wakes up in a fit and ultimately survives the ordeal.
When news reached that Rati Pandey was arriving at Bhopal aboard his GM special train, Imad ran towards the outer lines of the station to avoid a different accident. Since the communications were down, both trains were on the same railway tracks, meaning that they would have a head-to-head collision. Amidst the thick, toxic fog, Imad stumbles and falls on some rocks, heavily injuring his head. Despite the injury, the young man runs to the switch motor and changes the lines right in time to divert the trains onto different rail tracks. Imad Riaz then falls to the ground and loses his life after having given his all to save people from misery.
When Rati Pandey arrives at Bhopal Junction, he and the group of workers he had brought along provide first aid and supplies to the injured and sick people. The aid gradually reaches parts of the city as well, and the railway general manager’s daunting efforts help bring the situation back to normal in a shorter time. It is also suggested that Rati and Rajeshwari reconcile their relationship at the end.
Balwant Yadav, the crook, continues to look for ways to steal the money inside the safe at the station master’s office in Bhopal Junction. Finally, when Iftekaar faints, Balwant assumes the man to be dead and steals the keys to the safe. He removes all the money as well, but an incident the next morning makes him change his mind. Balwant overhears the police discussing how Iftekaar must have stolen all the money, and the young man is unable to let the blame be put on such an honest and helpful station master. Balwant returns the money inside the safe and then leaves Bhopal on a different train. One year after the tragedy, Balwant returns to Bhopal junction and is delighted to meet with Iftekaar, whom he thought to have died. As the two recall the horrific night, Iftekaar reveals that he had figured out Balwant to be the notorious Express Bandit. In response, Balwant informs that he has changed his ways and has, in fact, come to return a note from the safe that had stayed with him.
Could Jagmohan Kumawat uncover the negligence of Union Carbide?
Another important character that The Railway Men presents is a local journalist by the name of Jagmohan Kumawat, whose story is almost entirely true. The character is inspired from real-life Rajkumar Keswani, who had been preparing a news article about the negligent activities of the Union Carbide factory before the gas leak, particularly based on a report by C.S. Tyson that pointed out the safety flaws in the factory. Kumawat had been speaking to Imad to learn more about Ansari, the worker who had died from an earlier gas leak. They had also brought the factory in-charge, Kamruddin, onto their side, and the man had stolen the Tyson report from the factory. Although Kamruddin died before he could hand over the report to Kumawat, the journalist did manage to get hold of it finally. However, when he charged the manager, Madsen, about the same, the American pointed out how the report also had an addendum that stated how the factory had resolved all the safety flaws. In essence, the report could not be used in a court of law, as it would only prove Union Carbide had corrected its mistakes. Nonetheless, Kumawat continued to take photographs and write reports on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, also documenting the long-term effects of the incident on the health and social status of the citizens. In the end, nothing could be done against erstwhile UCC chairman Warren Anderson, as he managed to leave India and return to the US, from where he could never be extradited.