18th November 2023

The Railway Men review: incompetence is the name of the game

YRF’s first Netflix series, centred on the 1984 Bhopal tragedy, lacks virtually everything it needs to be Chernobyl or Trial by Fire.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic with over eight years of experience

Kay Kay Menon in The Railway Men
Kay Kay Menon as Iftekaar Siddiqui in The Railway Men // Photo: Zahir Abbas Khan/Netflix

In many ways, the story of the 1984 Bhopal tragedy—the world’s worst industrial disaster that killed several thousands and has affected half a million since—is a timeless one. It’s a deadly cocktail of corporate irresponsibility and government apathy, with the civilians left to fend for themselves in the moment and given little recourse to justice in the years after. It’s a story that has been repeated on countless occasions in India and elsewhere. Watching The Railway Men, I was reminded of Netflix’s terrific Trial by Fire and HBO’s excellent Chernobyl—Bhopal was India’s Chernobyl moment before Chernobyl. But unlike those two fellow miniseries, this four-part show has a very different point of view, as evinced by the title of the series.

The Railway Men botches its treatment

Though a wave of anger at the system flows across the new Netflix show, the problem is the depiction itself. The Railway Men is obsessed with trying to identify heroes in the conflict. That tone is nowhere as obvious as in the final minutes, where the series indulges in righteous sermons and unnecessary valorisation of its protagonists rather than leaving the audience to wallow in the multiple levels of failure that exacerbated the nightmare. The forced positivity and desire to leave on a hopeful note—it’s accompanied by the most Bollywood of additions: a song about the human spirit—is an indication of just how badly The Railway Men botches its approach.

But the Netflix series is doomed long before it gets there. Despite running for just four hourlong episodes—shorter than both Chernobyl and Trial by Fire—it suffers from severe padding issues, is disjointed and partly over-the-top, and feels like it lasts forever. Moreover, our protagonists are mostly stuck in a room, missing in action, or barely sketched out, making them little more than pawns that help move the plot along. You could attribute this to inexperience and lack of vision—with the writer Aayush Gupta having done nothing outside of two dozen C.I.D. episodes and the director Shiv Rawail having served as assistant director on a few YRF projects. (The production values of The Railway Men are good, for what it’s worth.)

Ultimately, this first YRF–Netflix collaboration is a depressing reminder of the streamer’s previous partnerships with big-ticket Indian studios, such as Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies, which gave us the likes of the unbearable Betaal and the irresponsible Bard of Blood before the deal was unceremoniously ended.

The Railway Men plot

After a quick introduction that shows how Union Carbide—the dysfunctional corporation at the centre of the Bhopal disaster—escaped justice, the story of The Railway Men begins on December 2, 1984, 16 hours before the gas leak. The Netflix series primarily follows Iftekaar “SM” Siddiqui (Kay Kay Menon), a self-righteous and PTSD-troubled stationmaster of Bhopal Junction, former UC truck driver Imad Riaz (Babil Khan) who lost a family member to a previous Carbide accident, Railway Protection Force constable Balwant “Express Bandit” Yadav (Divyenndu) who’s been robbing train stations and evading justice for 13 years, and Central Railways general manager Rati Pandey (R. Madhavan) inspecting a junction close to Bhopal on the night of the tragedy.

The Railway Men also makes room for a few subplots, including a journalist who serves as a stand-in for Rajkumar Keswani, the investigative journalist who predicted Bhopal; a station sweeper and her adopted daughter preparing for an IAS exam; a woman (Mandira Bedi) and her son escaping the anti-Sikh violence of late 1984; and a Delhi-based senior railways officer (Juhi Chawla Mehta) who’s close to Rati. But while one or two asides are handled well—the series pointedly notes the continued neglect even post-Bhopal—the rest get the same one-note treatment that’s meted out to its primary cast. Given the Netflix series feels slow on the whole, the trouble isn’t even a lack of time but rather an inability to craft memorable scenes in general.

R. Madhavan in The Railway Men
R. Madhavan as Rati Pandey in The Railway Men // Photo: Zahir Abbas Khan/Netflix

Rarely effective, largely lacklustre

If there’s one crystal clear idea that The Railway Men manages to communicate across its four episodes, it’s the distaste for big business. Union Carbide knew it was cutting corners, and the plant had significant problems years before the major leak. The disaster was a culmination of poor training, faulty instruments, little accountability, and a disregard for procedure. Even as the tragedy unfolded in Bhopal, the company responsible for it didn’t even lift a finger to help. Instead, it barricaded the factory, lived in denial, and refused to answer most calls and questions. On top of all that, the government not only delayed sending help but also helped UC’s senior personnel evade justice. India is the same today, where big businesses with political connections aren’t accountable to anyone.

The Railway Men is rightfully angry. Angry at the injustice, angry at how cheap life is, angry at how the white man escaped. But it has no idea how to depict or tackle that. Its myopic approach and lacklustre writing are ineffective in communicating that anger—and that at the end of the day, people only have each other to count on.

No lessons learned

The authorities throwing their hands up in response to an invisible killer is reminiscent of the horrors India went through with the COVID-19 pandemic, and The Railway Men’s final episode shot of the rows of funeral pyres evokes the images we lived not so long ago. A gap of almost three decades, but nothing has changed. And it goes on. Per the most recent available annual statistics, India had 39 of the world’s 50 most polluted cities. It may not as be dramatic as the Bhopal tragedy, but it’s nevertheless an alarming crisis. Everyone is slowly dying by breathing foul air—and the government and all other bodies are busy passing the buck. It’s a national tragedy, but so is our country.

All four episodes of The Railway Men released on Saturday, November 18 on Netflix worldwide.

Akhil Arora

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