The reimagining of a real-life tragedy is always a tricky ground. How does one balance the grim and horrific imagery into the fabric of a dramatised limited series? In Shiv Rawail’s The Railway Men, which chronicles the horrifying Bhopal Gad Tragedy of 1984 into four neatly cut episodes, the effect wears off pretty soon. The elements are all in place – effective performances from a committed cast, diligent production design and an impossible story of human courage. Still, it just doesn’t add up. (Also read: The Hunger Games The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes review: An ambitious yet flawed return to Panem)
How does one begin to tell a story as dense and complicated as this? The Railway Men chooses to do so right from the tricky ground at the centre, where a reporter played by Sunny Hunduja informs how the corrupted system guards its perpetrators. Gandhi’s ideals of tolerance and nonviolence hold little reason. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” he zooms in. Subtlety is definitely not the strongest quality of this series, nor is nuance.
The scene shifts to hours before the gas leak occurs, as the characters and their respective (euphemism for exhaustive) background stories are developed. Station master Iftekaar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon, reliably good) is haunted by brief flashbacks of a child he couldn’t save. He takes in the young and intelligent Imad (a terrific Babil Khan), who informs how a close friend became a scapegoat before the gas leak occurred. He is the reliable one, who will not bend his principles for anything else. There’s also a thief who awkwardly positions himself as a Railway Protection Force officer. He might as well grow some spine in the runtime.
Meanwhile, R Madhavan casually drops in midway as the General Manager of Central Railways named Rati Pandey. Juhi Chawla adds up as the Chief of Personnal seeking important answers from closed doors at the top. Meanwhile, a parallel track runs with a Sikh lady played by Mandira Bedi, who finds herself embroiled in a communal riot, who is helped by a train guard (Raghubir Yadav). With so many characters and their individual stories jostling for space in the overcrowded template of this series, the vitality of the aftermath of the gas leak is worn off quite early.
The tragedy occurs and the horrors slowly and steadily wreck havoc in the area. People die. Chaos takes hold. The tension arises out of these thinly written characters, somehow failing to add to any exposition as the episodes unfold. There are multiple unnecessary distractions that float about the bleak study of the aftermath. For one, the entire subplot revolving the wedding night being torn apart by the tragedy, or the one with the German scientists arguing about the dangers of the experiment, could have been done away with.
Unfortunately, The Railway Men feels drawn to substantiate appropriation of a horrifying tragedy in large chunks. The influence of the acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl is palpable in the textures and perspectives that The Railway Men tries so hard to implement. The residues are all there in plain sight – irresponsible managers, corrupted bosses, faulty standards, and the neglect that rests over the dead bodies. By the end, The Railway Men feels too preoccupied with the chaos, too statement-oriented in its approach to a disaster drama. It forgets to interrogate the gut-wrenching terror which must live buried under the remains of truth.