R. Madhavan on Netflix Global Top 3 Series ‘The Railway Men’: ‘Indian Shows Have Come of Age’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Indian actor R. Madhavan is soaking up the accolades for “The Railway Men,” the first production from YRF Entertainment, the streaming production arm of India’s Yash Raj Films.

The four-part series deals with the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and marks the first in a creative partnership between Netflix and Yash Raj.

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In 1984, a cloud of toxic gas escaped from an American pesticide plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal. It killed and injured thousands of people. The protagonists of “The Railway Men” are workers at the Bhopal railway station who saved thousands of lives. The cast is led by R. Madhavan (“Rocketry”) who plays an Indian Railways manager dealing with the humanitarian crisis. The series marks the directorial debut of Shiv Rawail, who has had previous stints as assistant director on Yash Raj Films productions “Dhoom 3,” starring Aamir Khan, and “Fan,” starring Shah Rukh Khan.

“The Railway Men” debuted on Nov. 18 atop Netflix’s South Asian charts and at No. 8 on the streamer’s non-English TV Top 10. In its second week, the show stayed at No. 1 across South Asia and soared to third position in the global chart.

Madhavan also serves as president of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), one of the country’s top film schools.

Variety spoke with Madhavan on “The Railway Men” and his stewardship of the FTII.

Variety: What made you decide to accept the role in “The Railway Men”?

R. Madhavan: When Shiv Rawail first came to me with the story and I came to know it was Yash Raj producing it, there were two things that were clear. One is that it’s going to be a great production value. And secondly, because it was Yash Raj’s first foray into OTT [streaming], it would have to be something special. But it was something which is completely out of character for Yash Raj to do. So, I was very curious. And why would a director who could possibly have the choice of making a big budget film with Yash Raj, because he was from their stables, with any big stars, choose a subject like this, which required a lot of research. But once I met Shiv, and once I realized the intent behind making such a series, knowing very well that I had limited screen space for my character in the film, I knew that I would walk into something that was going to be great, going to be epic, or something that is going to be for the archives. And no actor wants to give up on a chance like that. I did my due diligence, asked the relevant questions. And I was so thoroughly satisfied and happy with it that I agreed to it. And today, it just proves that I was right.

What prep did you do for the role?

I didn’t know much about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy because it was fed to us in bits and pieces when I was 14-years-old, newspapers being the only source of information for us. So, I didn’t realize the devastating effect of the tragedy until I started doing this series. And when I read the script, I was appalled by how little I knew about it. I did the research and I found out that it was so badly reported that the documentaries themselves made on it were very one-sided or not enough was being said about everybody who was involved in all they did to rescue the people during such a disaster. I found out and much to everybody’s amusement – people are writing that ‘oh, it’s fictional’ – but it’s not. The trains actually left towards Bhopal, when Indian Railways came to know about the tragedy, this incident actually happened. There were people rushing into the Bhopal station to save people and that was an amazing insight that I never would have had, had I not done this research.

“The Railway Men” is the No. 1 Netflix show across South Asia and in the Top 3 globally. What does that mean to you as an actor?

It just proves that Indian shows have come of age. I’ve only done two series with Netflix, “Decoupled” and this, and the amount of recognition I’ve gotten around the world because of these two is crazy. It puts a bigger responsibility on our shoulders when it comes to doing series, because we’re competing with the best in the world. And to be in the Top 10 when series like “The Crown” and “Squid Game” have dropped is a great achievement. The entire credit goes to the director and Yash Raj, and everybody involved in the technical aspects of the series. And to have got world class performances is something that I’m very happy and proud of as far as Shiv Rawail is concerned.

The Railway Men
R. Madhavan ‘ “The Railway Men”

What are your plans to grow FTII?

I want to make sure that I get as many people around the country into the fold of FTII, people who want to join the industry and are looking for opportunities. I want to make sure the short courses are taught in as many universities and places around India as possible. I want to increase awareness among students about world content. I want to explain to them about the pace of storytelling that has changed dramatically after the COVID era. We want to see how to make sure that the students coming out of FTII are considered to be absolutely gem-like, compared to the other institutes around India like IIMs (Indian Institute of Management) and IITs (Indian Institute of Technology). And people should be waiting in line to pick these students up and have them as part of their units. So, I have big dreams – I have to start slowly because I have limited powers and I’m still understanding the situation that I have to handle. But I’m very gung ho because I think the institute is world class, the students are brilliant and eager to learn.

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