In the past couple of years, Indian streaming has gone tragedy shopping. The hook could be anything from a spate of grisly murders to a fire in a movie theatre to a terrorist attack. Trauma is a powerful draw right now, which can’t be a great sign for the national psyche. Not all these series are exploitative, of course. But it's very difficult to see The Railway Men as anything but tragedy porn.
You can sense the eagerness to pile trauma on trauma. This four-episode series, produced by YRF Entertainment and streaming on Netflix, is set in Bhopal in 1984, during a deadly gas leak at a factory belonging to American fertilizer manufacturer Union Carbide. It killed over 2,200 people at the time and more since, and the aftereffects were felt for generations. Yet, series creator and director Shiv Rawail and writer Aayush Gupta don’t seem confident that the worst industrial disaster in Indian history is tragic enough material. So they have a running subplot about passengers on a Bhopal-bound train inflamed by Indira Gandhi’s murder and looking for Sikhs to lynch.
The first episode sets things up portentously. Stationmaster Iftekaar (Kay Kay Menon) runs a tight ship, though he’s haunted by the memory of a child he couldn’t save in a previous train accident. He hires Imad (Babil Khan) and puts the capable young man to work in the engine yard. A serial thief who specializes in train robberies (Divyenndu) has his eyes on a crore of rupees sitting in a locker at Bhopal station. At the Union Carbide factory, the workers are barely trained, safety measures are inadequate, and the management doesn’t care about supervisor Kamruddin’s (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) warnings.
The Railway Men likely took the HBO series Chernobyl (2019) as a model. Yet, Rawail might have looked closer to home for a lesson in staging this exact incident memorably. Mahesh Mathai’s film Bhopal Express (1999) crosscuts the first moment of leakage with a boozy ghazal performance. The factory is shown only a few times, sinister in the shadows of night. When the gas leaks from the pipes, it’s a single stream of smoke. The shot of the fumes escaping the factory is eerily beautiful. We see it spread in empty streets, a cat trying to dodge the advancing cloud. The first human reaction is a baby waking up and crying, followed by scattered coughs.
Compare this to how Rawail stages it. After the death of Imad’s boss to kick things off, we see the gas’ deadly effects on a marriage party. Everywhere, people gasping, collapsing, vomiting, asphyxiating. There isn’t a single haunting image, just a whole lot of dramatic suffering. Some viewers might be ground into pity, but it can’t match the hellish claustrophobia of the Jallianwala Bagh sequence in Sardar Udham (2021), let alone the eerie, composed destruction of Chernobyl.
The rest of the series is officials teaming up in various places to save the city: Iftekaar, the thief and Imad at Bhopal station, a committed journalist (Sunny Hinduja) in town, a general manager with the railways (R Madhavan) a few stations away, and Juhi Chawla’s bureaucrat in Delhi, battling political unwillingness to get an antidote and supplies on a train. With about two dozen other storylines also crammed in, and frequent flashbacks and jumps ahead, it’s all too much for four episodes.
The Railway Men made me long for the clarity of Virus, Aashiq Abu’s fine 2019 film about the Nipah outbreak. The series is stagey and sentimental—selfish employees find reserves of courage, bandits have a change of heart, a little boy sings in memory of his dead friend. Placing children in peril is often an indication that the makers don’t want to work too hard to win over an audience; here at least four are endangered (or sacrificed). In this hothouse atmosphere, the performances wilt. Babil Khan is the exception. He has an intriguing way of drawing out his sentences; he will not be hurried. It helps that his eyes are so expressive, since Imad is mostly seen with a handkerchief over his mouth (as are all the Bhopal characters after the leak). The scene where Iftekaar tells Imad to go home and leave the rest to him, and the younger man sadly, calmly replies that his mother is dead and he isn’t going anywhere is the most affecting in the whole show.
In the fourth episode, something new is attempted. Actual press photographs and news clips from Bhopal in 1984 are inserted in the middle of scenes. This sort of switching needs a deft touch—and it doesn’t work here, there’s too much difference between the show’s impersonal look and the grainy clips and photographs. It ends with a series of snapshots—filmed scenes beside their original layout. But imitation is no substitute for imagination.