The Railway Men is painstakingly calculated for emotional responses (notice how a scooter helps a journalist to take a pregnant woman to the hospital). Every maladroit element is forced into its place to release a "timely message" (the Bhopal gas tragedy is used to draw a parallel between the past and the present). The subject itself is too disturbing and intense. Even without loud embellishments, the material can move the audience. But director Shiv Rawail infuses the story with melodramatic touches. He doesn't take a risk on our reaching out to the characters. Instead, he pushes everything at us. What should have been heartbreaking and inspirational is all filled in and spelled out until it becomes almost heavy-handed. The images scream at such a high pitch that you end up feeling exhausted.
The current climate is so toxic that The Railway Men cannot just concentrate on the poisonous gas. This is why you see rioters on a train hunting for Sikh passengers. The intention is to convey that history repeats itself - that people get blinded by violence, so much so that they kill innocent citizens only because they belong to a particular religion. The series also touches on the toxicity displayed by sports fans by making a coach say that there will always be winners and losers in any game. These elements stick out like a sore thumb, but the series thrusts them into place, rendering them more inelegant. It becomes evident that The Railway Men is making a statement. If only these "statements" had been organically integrated.
On top of all this, Rati (R. Madhavan), the general manager, and Baldev (Divyenndu), a dacoit, are introduced as cool movie characters. Their entry shot feels awkward because it belongs to a crowd-pleasing entertainment, like an Akshay Kumar vehicle, where one man saves the entire nation. And The Railway Men wants to be "grounded." So why make such a detrimental decision? Where is this fan service, complete with an attitude that wants to generate whistles, coming from? What's worse are the moments where the emotional meter is raised for more tears. Hence, a song that arrives after a flashback where a boy asks his brother to sing a lullaby for him. You also get that irksome scene where a girl takes what seems like an eternity to run towards a train. You understand the intention behind this decision, but the sloshy tone gets on your nerves. "Just get on the train, goddammit!" we say, rather than cheering for her to sprint towards the train.
Yet, The Railway Men is not a complete disaster. It's one of those shows that doesn't bother you as long as you watch it. All the issues come rushing in front of your eyes when the series ends. Still, one cannot deny the powerful presence of its actors. It's they who make this material extremely tolerable. Kay Kay Menon's smile is like a bulb that obliterates the darkness. You feel like doing anything for Menon so that he can give you his approval with his happy countenance. His character, however, is saddled with a tragic past, which the series uses for some arty camera movements. Babil Khan's determination, Madhvan's courage, and Divyendu's comic/frustrated attitude are infectious. Divyendu's character, though, is not well-written. His graph is too artificial - it's premeditated.
Let's take two examples from The Railway Men that show its strengths and reveal what it could have been in better hands. First, take the countdown text from Episode 1. Notice how 2-3 hours go by within what seems like minutes, and 9 seconds are stretched to what seems like many minutes. This stretching effectively raises tension and makes you nervous. Now, take the scene where Iftekaar (Menon), the station master, tries contacting a station through a block instrument. It's so terrifically performed and executed that you almost breathlessly wait for the communication to take place. The Railway Men needed more such nerve-racking and well-shot sequences. Instead, we are mainly injected with overly sentimental doses that undercut the material's dramatic potential.
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