The Railway Men, produced by Yash Raj Films and helmed by debutant director Shiv Rawail, is a tribute to the unsung heroes of the Bhopal gas tragedy
The employees of Indian Railways in Bhopal are the heroes of the story, based on true events, told in The Railway Men. On the evening of December 2, 1984, these heroes fought an invisible enemy in the air and risked their lives to save the people of Bhopal. It recalls the brave actions of people who, in a race against time, worked heroically to save hundreds of lives on the night of one of the biggest industrial disasters in world history—the Bhopal gas tragedy.
There’s a scene in Maneesh Sharma’s directorial debut, Band Baaja Baaraat, where Bittoo Sharma (Ranveer Singh) tells the florist Maqsood bhai (Neeraj Sood) that what if the caterer messes up as a first-timer? To which Maqsood replies, “Tum bhi toh first time kar rahe ho!” (You are also doing it for the first time.) It’s always a risk with a first-timer, but kudos to the producers who take that plunge. Credit is due to Aditya Chopra for appointing Shiv Rawail as the captain of the ship, named The Railway Men.
Any series based on real-life events also takes that risk to bring a sense of authenticity to their narrative. The Bhopal gas tragedy, considered one of the biggest industrial disasters across the globe, continues to be an unforgettable event, carrying significant impact. It’s quite interesting how the unsung heroes are finally getting their due credit for their roles brought about in the celluloid.
Here, it’s a known fact that the network of Indian railways is unimaginable. Sometimes, you can even look at the railway track and imagine how it connects to the whole country. The number of employees also working at the Indian Railways is the highest in the world. The Railway Men connects this network from other parts of the country at a time when communication was limited and no mobile phones were available.
The Bhopal gas tragedy took place on December 2, 1984, hardly a month after the assassination of the former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The country was on a violent streak, and Sikhs were running for their lives as they were the target of many. Meanwhile, many people also lost trust in each other and believed that everyone was their enemy. At that time, an unknown and most brutal adversary enters the air, only to make matters worse. The tragedy is an open book on how it happened, and lack of humanity is the top factor. The real footage added while narrating the story in The Railway Men is what makes it the best part, blending well and making the story more engaging.
Just like how the railways are considered to be the nervous system of the country, this analogy extends to the employees as well. The station master, Iftekaar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon), who controls Bhopal Junction, one of the busiest railway stations in the country, suffers from PTSD due to a previous heinous incident. However, when the tragedy strikes again, his prompt action and alertness create a visual impact that’s beyond imagination. He believes that in railways, one has to be aware of their surroundings, and not everyone gets second chances. However, when life gives him a chance to save the lives of the people around him, he doesn’t blink his eyes and gets on with it. But with great power comes great responsibility, and here it’s to handle a crowd from different walks of life and belief systems.
Former Union Carbide (the factory from which the gas leaked) employee Imad Riaz (Babil Khan) joins the Railways. He tells Sunny Hinduja’s character, a journalist, that there is toxic air in the area and that the journalist intends to expose the truth about the careless company. Imad is aware of the worst impact of the gas leak, as he has witnessed the same in his family. Little did he know that his first day as a railway employee would lead him to face this tragedy, which goes beyond expectations.
Meanwhile, there’s a police constable who is also a notorious thief named Balwant Yadav, aka Express Bandit (Divyenndu), who enters the Bhopal railway station with the intention of stealing crores of rupees. However, he chooses the path of humanity as the poisonous gas enters the air. Moreover, his being a cop also gives him a certain power to handle the mob.
These three men are in Bhopal and are the eyewitnesses to the tragedy, and the buildup in the first episode is so intriguing that, like me, you will also end up watching the whole series in one stretch.
Along with the writing and the direction, in a show like The Railway Men, it’s also the actors who have a greater role to play, even the technical team. The enemy is invisible, so the characters’ reaction to the same is of the utmost importance, and they do make it so believable that you might feel that you are breathing the same air as them.
The Railway Men not only depict the deaths caused by the gas leak but also portray the risks taken by those who save them. In doing so, the people who are saving them are also putting their lives at risk. In a series like this, it’s the individual stories that make it more humane and empathetic for the viewer.
Religion has always intertwined with the political climate in the country. Thus, demonstrating the same in the series was a great touch. One of the important sequences in the series features Mandira Bedi as a Sikh woman with her son, who is risking her life while a group of men are slashing the throats of turbaned men.
Showing the subplots amid this tragedy was necessary to indicate the constant shift in people’s approach, even among those who are in close proximity. Great job done by Aayush Gupta on writing these subplots, which brought more depth to the series that has extensively shown the bravado of a ‘few good men’.
Speaking about performances, The Railway Men, even before its release, won with its cast that includes Kay Kay, R Madhavan, Divvyendu, Babil and Sunny. These men drive the story of the unsung heroes, and hands down, these portrayals are going to be unforgettable.
I would say this show belongs to Kay Kay. His role as stationmaster Siddiqui, who is a guardian of the Bhopal Junction and also a no-nonsense man taking charge to save the lives of the people, is commendable. Most of the actors cover their faces throughout the show and let their eyes do the talking. We hear them say dialogue, but only the teary and turning red eyes show what they are feeling. Well, those expressive eyes of Kay Kay are enough for us to bow to him for being this incredible performer.
Another unsung hero about whom I have not talked is Rati Pandey, the General Manager at the Central Railways, played amazingly by Madhavan. Even the placement of bringing this character shows how rightly the edit is of getting another saviour at the right place at the right time. After the rest of the country is unaware of what's happening in Bhopal, it’s him who finds out how the situation has worsened, even without knowing the reason. It’s the calm and composed demeanour of the actor that makes his character more palpable and worth the wait.
Babil, the youngest of all, beautifully portrays Imad in a fantastically written part. The innocence in the face while also showing a sense of responsibility is well nuanced by the actor, and he will definitely not let you take your eyes off him.
Talking about Divyenndu, his character does bring comic relief to tragedy, but even that lands well without making it look forced. The group of men who are not alike in any manner needed a constable who is also a thief targeting railways in this series. The actor's portrayal of the constable, who is also a thief targeting railways in this series, has worked well and left a lasting impact.
So do the other actors: Sunny, Mandira, Juhi Chawla Mehta, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, and Raghubir Yadav. Each character elevates The Railway Men to a more engaging series by bringing together their important stories in parallel.
At the end of the day, the risk of Shiv Rawail narrating a story of the Bhopal gas tragedy, which you may have read about but never witnessed, has been fruitful.
The Railway Men does stand as a poignant tribute to the unsung heroes of the Bhopal gas tragedy. It vividly portrays the courage and sacrifices made by Indian Railways employees.