Director: Shiv Rawail
Writers: Aayush Gupta, Shiv Rawail
Cast: Kay Kay Menon, Babil Khan, Divyendu Sharma, R. Madhavan, Sunny Hinduja, Raghubir Yadav, Mandira Bedi, Juhi Chawla
Streaming on: Netflix
A tragedy sweeps through a city. The infrastructure collapses. Innocent civilians die. Nobody is held accountable. A bunch of unlikely government employees come together. Despite the lack of support and resources from above, they save countless lives. All this, while being haunted by their own demons through a night of terror and reckoning. The series expertly juggles multiple characters and arcs, juxtaposing the crisis with the calm and the personal with the social. The stakes remain high, the performances are physically riveting, the production design shines, and the action stays rooted in a sense of emotional integrity. By the end, a new meaning of heroism emerges — one that explores systemic rot and celebrates the resilience of the common man.
Except, this is actually Mumbai Diaries 2 (2023) we’re talking about here. The Railway Men thinks it is precisely this series — it’s not. It uses the same template — the dramatisation of a real-world calamity — and becomes a prime example of how not to use it. I know that’s a cruel way to make a point, but I’m not the cruel one here. Blame it on the four hour-long episodes that reframe one of the darkest chapters in Indian history as a hammy soap opera (or a musical without the music). This needn’t necessarily be a bad thing: Disaster Pulp is also a genre. However, this is the sort of filmmaking that’s too artificial to be effective. I’ll circle back to this in a bit. One step at a time.
As the full title suggests, The Railway Men: The Untold Story of Bhopal 1984 is based on a little-known dimension of the country’s worst industrial disaster. It revolves around a few brave railway workers, who risk their lives to limit the damage caused by deadly gas leaks from the Union Carbide pesticide plant on that fateful December night. Here goes: There’s a veteran station-master, Iftekaar Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon), who leads a desperate relief mission when survivors seek refuge on his turf. There’s his young apprentice Imad (Babil Khan), an ex-plant employee determined to aid Iftekaar, and seek justice for a friend who died in an unreported leak. There’s a thief (Divyendu Sharma) posing as an RPF (Railway Protection Force) officer, who grows a conscience and becomes a team player for a while. There’s the manager of the plant, Kamruddin (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), who leaks buried toxicology reports to a journalist.
We’re not done. There’s the journalist (Sunny Hinduja), who hustles to expose Union Carbide while also protecting his source’s pregnant wife. There’s the General Manager of Central Railways, Rati (R. Madhavan), who defies protocol and rallies his troops from another town. There’s the Chief of Personnel (Juhi Chawla), who navigates bureaucratic red tape in Delhi to pave a path for Rati. There’s a Sikh lady (Mandira Bedi) and her child on a train headed towards Bhopal, a kindly ticket inspector (Raghubir Yadav), and also anti-Sikh rioters storming this train. There are many more, because a new character seems to be introduced every other scene and it’s impossible to keep up. I’m also out of breath and space. So let’s stop here for now.
It’s a good time to mention that The Railway Men, directed by Shiv Rawail, is the first web series from YRF Entertainment. Most production houses venturing into the streaming space treat it as an alternative medium, where the style guides and big-screen aesthetics often make way for diverse voices. In other words, the producer’s stamp is invisible. But not this time. The show puts the leg in ‘legacy’. So much of its staging is coated with trademark studio gloss — the kind that makes the destruction look curated and the tropes scream for attention. The grammar is reverse-engineered to fit commercial sensibilities. As a result, it unfolds like an extended feature-length entertainer rather than a Chernobyl-like limited series. To use a cricket analogy: The Test match is forced to adopt the narrative identity of a five-day T20 contest. There is no feel for the longer format.
It simply fails at a macro level – where the railway station looks like a mismanaged set of extras who’re forced to perform beyond their job profile (all the gasping loses its urgency by the sixth minute); where the poisoned atmosphere looks like an errant motion poster; where American bosses behave like snarling cartoon villains; where the VFX (especially in terms of the locomotive drama) looks like animation gone wrong; where you can almost see the make-up department struggling to keep the watery-eyes-and-choked-throats theme going; where a rousing “let’s be heroes” monologue is almost offensive for how fake it sounds; and where 1984 is made to look like a Seventies Bollywood-themed ball. Even if the pulp is intentional, it just feels wrong in the context of this particular tragedy. Apart from a radio broadcasting a Laxman Sivaramakrishnan five-wicket haul, the details are mostly decorative.
It’s never nice when a series loses you in its first ten minutes. The journalist’s cynical voice-over – something about injustice, the common man and the futility of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals – is heard over shots of the Big Bad Company Boss returning to his country on a private plane without facing the consequences of the leak. The (superficial) tone is set. The story then dives back into the hours leading up to the leak, starting with the righteous station master being haunted by nightmares of a child that once died on his watch. His recurring trauma may have made sense on paper, but the accident itself has the theatricality of a comic-book movie — a train dangling over the bridge at the dead of night and all. One by one, the episode introduces the protagonists in hero-montage fashion. The ‘Express Bandit’ looks like he’s in a separate retro Western like Gunday (2014), plotting a heist at the station before the calamity hijacks his movie. The newbie is trained by a senior straight out of a Mumbai gangster flick. A promising young woman expresses delight that her mentor drops by on her wedding night. The groom’s white horse arrives like a doomed side-actor in a slasher flick. A worried German scientist somewhere in the world finishes his experiment and alerts his boss of an impending tragedy (to which his boss goes: “Shhh, tell nobody ok?”).
Which is to say: All of what we see is a kitschy, studio-crafted appropriation of tragedy. The fiction overrides the truth, turning it into more of a mainstream actioner having an identity crisis. Very little looks natural or organic – other than Kay Kay Menon who, after Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008), once again finds his calibre at odds with the mediocrity of the material. Of his three long-form roles this year, only Farzi (2023) figured out how to optimise his talent.
Half-baked formula infects the entire narrative. For instance, we see a team of teenage swimmers with their coach at the station. One of them is teased for coming second in her race. That’s all the character-arc we get. Because when the last-ditch escape happens, this girl is suddenly given a slow-mo rescue moment — complete with flashbacks of her friends mocking her. She carries a woman on her shoulder, and we’re supposed to feel the emotions one might associate with a fully fleshed-out Chak De! India (2007) player. To put it politely, the callback is weak; all the humans are reduced to script ideas. Then there’s the parallel Tony-Scott-esque train thriller. The tension on the tracks feels so manufactured, that the set piece of two engines barrelling in from opposite directions only to narrowly miss each other feels like a walk in the park. (Of course a dying man manoeuvres the switch machine at the last moment.) At another point, the leader of a violent mob singling out Sikh passengers dutifully addresses everyone in his gang by their real names so that we know they’re Hindus. The expository devices (including the arrogance of Delhi ministers) are painfully basic.
There are unnecessary gimmicks — like two professionals bickering on the phone throughout the show only to be ‘revealed’ as an estranged married couple. Even an actual miracle, like a man declared dead only to wake up at a morgue, looks made up. A wide-ranging supporting cast is wasted. The action trades authenticity for scale. Even that age-old trick – a climax that juxtaposes real-life footage against its fictional retelling – lacks rhythm. There’s a lot more, but I’m again out of breath, patience and space. It’s worth noting that YRF Television was ahead of the curve when it launched homegrown shows like Powder and Kismat back in 2010. But The Railway Men suggests that its OTT vision is behind the curve. I wish I had something constructive to say about this series, particularly because the source material might have made for a heartfelt survival thriller. But some stories are perhaps best left untold.