R Madhavan was a teenager growing up in Jamshedpur when the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy unfolded. On the night of December 2-3 —over a month since Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the ensuing anti-Sikh riots across the country — highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas escaped from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The leakage killed thousands of people from exposure while injuring and disabling countless others. It is considered the world’s largest industrial disaster, with an eventual death toll of over 15,000.

The inhuman negligence and devastation in Bhopal, and the few good men who rose to the occasion, are the subject of Yash Raj Films’ maiden web-series The Railway Men. The four-part series shines a light on a lesser-known aspect of the Bhopal crisis; how, with the entire city in disarray, employees of the Indian Railways fought against odds and saved hundreds of stranded civilians. In the show, Madhavan essays the role of Rati Pandey, the General Manager of the Central Railways who bravely steers the rescue operations (he’s joined in the cast by Kay Menon, Babil Khan, Divyenndu and others) We spoke to the National Award-winning star about working in the series and his feelings about the Bhopal disaster.

Excerpts from an interview:

1984 was a rather grim year in our history. Do you remember the first time you heard the news about the crisis in Bhopal?

1983 was the cricket World Cup victory and then ‘84 was a disaster year for us in every sense of the word. I was living in Jamshedpur, then in Bihar. Like Bhopal, it is also an industrial town. The city is run by Tata Steel and the Telco factories are there. So we were used to getting up to the sound of sirens during the shift changes and seeing the process of slag dumps. When the Bhopal tragedy happened, we heard about it only a day later because the newspapers back then used to come from Calcutta. Slowly, the news started trickling in... 40 people died, 400 people died, 4,000 people died. Somehow, we never felt the impact of it because the information arrived in spurts. It’s only with time I realised that this was the biggest man-made disaster in the world, even bigger than Chernobyl and 9/11.

Even today, it’s important to react to it. Everyone responsible for a crisis of this magnitude — the small mistakes, the carelessness, the lack of any understanding of who we were sending out of the country (in the case of late Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson) — needs to be highlighted so something like this doesn’t happen again.

What shook you most about the facts of the tragedy?

One thing that really hit me was the suddenness of it all. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we had some idea about how to deal with it; whether by wearing a mask or staying put indoors. But can you imagine the initial reaction of a city where a noxious gas leak has taken place? One moment you are having tea with your friend or neighbour; the next second he’s dead from chemical exposure. It happened that quickly. There was no escape route, no roadmap to safety. That agony and helplessness of 20,000 victims is what I found most disturbing to fathom.

Tell us about creating your character, Rati Pandey, in the series?

When Rati is introduced in the story, he is not aware of the gravity of the situation. He has just come to inspect something in the Railways. And then, the impact of what is happening in Bhopal hits him. Whenever I read a script as an actor, I try to anchor my character in one scene that I can identify with completely, and then I try to spread the personality around that. Here, it was a scene where I talk to the rest of the railwaymen and try to motivate them to do my bidding. Instead of giving a fiery speech, my character is just voicing out his conscience. It was a beautifully written set of lines and I knew I had found my moment of truth in it.