Madhavan: I have a grudge against people who accuse Indians of being melodramatic
The recently released Netflix series, The Railway Men, is taglined 'The untold story of Bhopal 1984'. However, ironically, the series is documenting—albeit in a fictional format—what is considered to be one of the ‘worst industrial disasters in the world’. In this discussion with the team behind the series, which includes R Madhavan, Kay Kay Menon, and Babil Khan, we delve into why the tragedy of The Bhopal Disaster needs to be revisited, what we could learn from it, and how humanity managed to persevere while being surrounded by all the chaos death on that one fateful night.
Is it strange that there aren't too many films about this disaster, so to speak?
Madhavan: Did you know that it is the world's greatest industrial disaster? I didn't know about it till I started doing The Railway Men. The number of people who perished that night is much more than the 9/11 incident, and the Tsunami. One night these many people vanished. Can you imagine that night in Bhopal? When people are just sitting there, and suddenly somebody starts to bleed from the nose? And you don't know why. And you have to choose between your family members? You don't know whether to wear a mask? Do you put yourself under water? Do you have to wash your face? Do you have to put oil in your nose to stop it? Nobody knew what was happening that night, they just knew that there was poison in the air.
Also, people were coming from other parts of India towards Bhopal to help with the evacuation, knowing very well that this could be their last night. There is no training to handle something like this and yet, people hurtled towards Bhopal to save the others. Learning about that gave me goosebumps.
These stories are also important because news has a way of reducing people to numbers
M: Absolutely. When I first heard about it, I was in Jamshedpur, and I didn’t even hear it on the radio. I read about it in the newspaper the next day. On the first day, we heard 30 people died, and then the next day they said the number was 650. Only later on did we realise that around 20,000 people died.
Why do you think it was necessary to create a fictionalised narrative based on the incident instead of just making a documentary?
M: When you see a documentary, you will never actually see how people were affected by the gas. If you see Kay Kay Menon or Divyendu’s characters by the end of the series, their eyes are literally popping out and red. You can see the effect of the gas on their skin. A documentary has to rely on actual footage.
There was a sense of realism in the show and that was amply evident in all the performances. It was especially evident in the relationship between Kay Kay Menon and Babil Khan’s characters.
Babil Khan: When I was doing The Railway Men, I was pretty new to acting and I didn't know how to fake things. I thought I wouldn’t get any help and I was nervous. However, once I reached the sets, I realised everybody was trying to make the other person better. I had the most amount of scenes with Kay Kay sir and he generously answered all of my stupid questions. In the emotional scenes, it wasn’t my character Imadh feeling for his character, it was Babil feeling for Kay Kay sir.
Kay Kay Menon: His personality was pretty much close to his character and that was endearing. All an actor has to do is to carry that and everything else will unfold by itself.
Can you talk a bit about the intricate set pieces and how they contributed to the performances and created an eerie atmosphere?
M: I was shuddering on the last day of my shoot. It was when we shot the scene towards the end when the area was declared safe and I had to stand on top of a foot overbridge and look at the vast expanse of the entire Bhopal Junction. It was all a set piece and I was supposed to look at this devastation in front of me. Standing there, it is impossible not to feel what happened 40 years ago.
Most of the performances were grounded. Did you have any common guidelines as to how much was enough? And how much more you could do, but you shouldn't?
M: That’s the beautiful thing about the actors here because none of them are insecure. So there was no one-upmanship happening, which is when you usually see melodramatic performances coming up. However, I have a grudge against people who accuse Indians of being melodramatic. We are that kind of people. We, as a country, are prone to melodrama. We're loud with what we do.
Kay Kay Menon, your character Iftekaar Siddiqui, the station master of the Bhopal railway station had a lot of intense and demanding scenes. Can you tell us a bit about what you saw in your character and how you decided to play it?
KKM: Frankly, I don’t have an answer. Performances like these come up when you are put in an environment, the sets, which are too good to be true. If there was a scene that had me jumping across a platform, it was built to the same height as the original platform. It was all too believable so all you need to do was to be present at the moment, with all your senses open.
As for bringing out emotions, even if someone has a cloth wrapped around their head, you can understand their emotions without seeing their face. If they are true to their emotions, their feelings come through and you can sense them. As actors, we need to understand this and realise that you don’t need to emote in ways that are instantly decipherable. You just need to trust the process, be in the moment, and feel the emotions, and it will come through in your performance.