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The Railway Men- The Saga Of Some People Not Losing Humanity In The Face Of Disaster 

Review of the web series "The Railway Men" by Moumita Alam


The Railway Men

The truth is that in this country, if anything is cheaper than sea salt and homespun clothes, then it's life. These opening lines of the four-part web series "The Railway Men" set the mood for the entire web series that is based on the Bhopal gas tragedy - one of the largest tragedies of Indian history and perhaps the biggest industrial disaster that the unfortunate masses of India faced in 1984. It holds an in-depth story of that horrible night of December 2-3, 1984, that throttled the breath of the central Indian city, Bhopal, and caused over tens of thousands of lives to be lost.


India has no dearth of tragedies and it never learns the lessons of not repeating them. Rather, the common mass learns to move on from their losses of lives by their survival instinct and move on. Not a typical hero-centric movie, the web series tells the stories of the unsung heroes who knew their jobs and did their jobs honestly on that breathless night.


In this country of endless tragedies where one tragedy follows another and human lives are always a number, the number of deaths defines the magnitude of the tragedy and grabs the headline according to it, this web series at least does one thing right: keeping the memory alive. The memory of those numbers - 15,000 who are now a mass, a number, the unfortunate number who are killed but still are mentioned as dead. In India, the meanings of the words Dead and Killed subtly bend depending on who encounters them, carrying different weights of grief, justice, and memory.


At the heart of the story that propels the web series, there is industrial corporate accountability, corruption, and indifference towards the safety issues of the workers and the people around and India's bureaucracy and political web nets that are always bound by the red tape. The series also touches on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 that lasted over a month. After the assassination of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, anti-Sikh riots followed at the heart of the capital. The mother-son duo who happen to be Sikhs travelling to Bhopal by train face an attack by the rioters and the railway guard along with some people save them. The train journey shows both two facets of Indian mass. Some people might be prone to hatred but the larger mass still is for peace, for love.


Kay Kay Menon in his characteristic round spectrum of chiselled expressions of a seasoned actor steals the show. R Madhavan as Rati Pandey with restrained emotions and temperate dialogues holds the ground. Babil Khan as Imad Riaz after Qala proved once again he is unlike other nepo kids and has learnt the art of acting. Diveyendu's manoeuvres in the series are never flamboyant. All the characters are on their ambits doing what they have been chosen to do. Juhi Chawla in her short appearance works as the only conscience of the bureaucracy. Sunny Hinduja as the journalist is very real, never gives up and treats his subject with compassion and empathy. The journalist stands in the series as a real ground reporter who spends their career covering ground issues but hardly gets any recognition.


Sunny Hinduja brings to life Rajkumar Keswani, the journalist who saw the Union Carbide disaster coming from a mile away but no one paid heed to his warnings. Watching Hinduja navigate this emotional rollercoaster is a sobering testament to the countless unseen heroes who dare to defy the Goliath of corporate power, even when they know the odds are stacked against them. His performance is a burning reminder that while they may not win every battle, their unwavering voices keep the embers of justice flickering in the wind. Thirty-nine years after that fateful night, Bhopal's scars remain, and the fight for justice still grinds on. But as long as stories like Keswani, brought to life so powerfully by Hinduja, continue to be told, there's a flicker of hope that the scales might one day tip towards truth and accountability.


Sunny Hinduja portrayed Rajkumar Keswani in the series
Sunny Hinduja portrayed Rajkumar Keswani in the series

Union Carbide Company was directly responsible for the disaster. Six systems were supposed to be in place in the company to stop the spread of Methyl Isocyanate that was stored in the Union Carbide Company but none of these was functional in the factory that night. It caused the spread of 27 tonnes of MIC gas spread throughout the sleeping city. The web series hasn't failed to capture all these failures in delivering the narrative of the series.


The web series is not only about the Bhopal industrial disaster. It's about the role of the Indian railway too. The role of the Indian railway that worked as an artery pumping oxygen to the choked city that night. It might be a bit of an exaggeration in the series but it's undeniable that the general railway compartments are still a microcosm of the Indian society, the real Indian society that has many distinct layers yet co-existing over the years if not amicably always but not always fighting. The railway men again help us to understand that it's not the iron tracks but the humans who run them that make India run. It's the veins of the Indian heart. So its complete privatisation can create a block in the artery which eventually will fail India as the series shows ethics and safety are never a concern of the Industrial giants. They know profit only.



While watching the series the audiences who have just left a pandemic behind are sure to feel the suffocation and choked breath of the pandemic. The vignettes of the helpless, clueless mass of Bhopal time and again remind the audiences of the migrant workers who were disowned by the government during the unplanned lockdown at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. While watching the series, one feels in the face of a disaster of grand magnitude, the Indian establishment is always unprepared and always crumbles and it disowns the common people. The common people are on their own whether dying or surviving but all alone.

   

Some critics may blame the series calling it disaster porn for showing scenes of relentless deaths and horror of that horrible night of 2-3 December. But the real horrors that the deceased faced and still facing are no way near to the scenes of the series.  The December night of 1984 was without any relief as the series is or might be darker than the series is. The questions that the Bhopal gas tragedy left behind are still unanswered. 


In the current milieu of jingoistic hyper-nationalistic cinemas, the OTT has kept the real stuff alive. At least in the case of The Railway Men, it once again ignites the dying issue with a flame of fresh memories. The victims are still awaiting justice. 


The director Shiv Rawail might be accused of making it too dark, but it's never an exaggeration for the audiences. The series once again brought the tragedy into the dinner table of the Indian audiences who have a very short memory span. The series as a disaster drama could have been more introspective but with so many characters and subplots with a limited four-part space, the director didn't have much to do. And also it's not only about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, it's also about some dedicated workers of the Indian Railway. The audience should keep that in mind while watching the series.  For dedicated, intense audiences lapses in storytelling are sometimes evident but never become a nuisance. Nevertheless, the narrative keeps the audiences glued to the screen which is the cardinal aspect of a series released in the OTT platforms.


 

Moumita

Moumita Alam is a poet from West Bengal. Her poetry collection, The Musings of the Dark was published in 2020. The book has about a hundred poems written in protest against the humanitarian crisis from the abrogation of article 370, the Delhi riots, and the Shaheen Bagh movement to the unbearable sufferings of the migrant labourers due to the unplanned COVID-induced lockdown.


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