Doffing Our Hat To Chernobyl - A Rare Masterpiece That Sets A Benchmark

Archita Kashyap - 69 weeks ago

Chernobyl, the mini-series has set new records in audience approval ratings. Beyond numbers, it has told a significant truth of postmodern world history that most young people might have missed out on and does so with masterful story-telling that grips in its grim, uncompromising presentation.

(Show creator Craig Mazin with Stellan Skarsgård and Jared Harris on the sets of Chernobyl (Image courtesy - MovieStillsDB)

Rarely does a piece of work on film or TV unite fans in approval like Chernobyl, the miniseries from HBO and Sky, has done. It has a 9.7 approval rating on IMDB, jumping up by .7 after its fourth and penultimate episode. Not boasting of stars, instead loaded with reputed actors who hold their own in any role (Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris, Emily Watson, David Dencik and Ralph Ineson amongst others), this British fictional series captures unimaginable callousness and disastrous state control like reality. Most of all, it shows the humane side of this disaster’s aftermath like it happened through select testimony, setting itself apart in its educative and engaging role on a popular medium. 

This has got to do with a simple fact - Chernobyl awakens a new generation to one of the dirtiest acts carried out by a government against its own people, and the planet at large. The former Soviet Union tried its level best to paper over this nuclear explosion and its planet-threatening effects. As history textbooks around the world have mostly omitted to tell this story (and others, in much smaller scale but with equally life threatening consequences), Chernobyl brings a grim, unrelenting and honest account of this nuclear disaster. Some facts can shed light on this disaster’s scale. In 36 hours of the nuclear reactor Chernobyl 4 exploding, the USSR had evacuated 220,000 people approximately. While best efforts couldn’t prevent the radioactive fire in an exposed core burning for over 10 days, 60 per cent of radiation related damage was absorbed by Belarus. But pollution of rivers and the Black Sea, thereby preventing pollution of waters in most of Western Europe was prevented. While milk and milk products in a radius of a 100 square kilometers continued to be consumed, allegedly causing thyroid cancer in hundreds of thousands of people, most other sources of pollution were cauterized. Chernobyl’s aftermath is a massive exercise in human effort and mass disaster management. The series underlines these blood curdling facts but keeps firm focus on the human aspect of this incident. 

(A still from Chernobyl featuring Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris and Ralph Ineson)

It is a triumph of excellent storytelling. Craig Mazin, the show’s creator, writer and one of its executive producers, has purposely focused his narrative away from hyperbole. Instead he tells the story from the point of view of the people of former USSR; those incredibly brave unsung heroes that faced deadly exposure to radiation, in different doses, to save their country, and most of Europe. Mazin has spoken to key media since the series’ stratospheric rise after telecast. The one common point that rings through in his conversations is his commitment to telling the story of these brave, unnamed people who sacrificed life and health to save their countrymen and citizens of the world. 

(A still from Chernobyl featuring Michael Colgan)

In his own words, Mazin has spent years researching, reading and listening to first person testimony of eye witnesses to this explosion, and those involved in subsequent massive damage control. He chose those stories that were not as much dramatic as touching in their simplicity of the act of selfless sacrifice. Many in these episodes - from firemen, to miners, to Boris Shcherbina, the minister in charge of managing this disaster and the lead scientist Valery Legasov - knew they would die of cancer and other painful, incurable ailments. They chose to pursue this battle against a natural element gone wrong and never looked back. Soviet history has concealed and erased their contribution, as it would require admitting to the state’s colossal failure in opting for such high-risk nuclear reactors in the first place. Chernobyl serves their memory without compromise and with complete honesty. As creative liberties have been taken, Mazin and the creative team of this series upload a podcast with each new episode, explaining what is drawn from reality and what has been re-interpreted. But the gist remains consistent; the show is a reminder to everyone to not just take an authority’s word on face value always. In the township of Pripyat, just 3 kilometers from Chernobyl, not a single citizen was aware of what radiation from a nuclear accident could do to them. Some of them went to watch the nuclear blast as entertainment from a distance. That basic awareness of this level didn’t exist here, indicates the state’s rampant and reckless power - where one could gamble away an entire town’s life for the sake of denial. Suffering was a way of life in the Soviet Union. Chernobyl highlights this. It also insists on empowering various truths that can be manipulated. 

(Behind the scene image during the shooting of Chernobyl)

In Chernobyl, there is an interesting detail about the state of Indian cinema and television till date. 2 years before the nuclear disaster, India had its own manmade mass disaster - the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy. While over 50,000 lost their lives, over a million are supposed to have been affected by effects of gas poisoning and toxins released in the ecosystem and underground water table. While the involvement of Union Carbide, and it’s chief the late Warren Anderson is well known thanks to frenzied media coverage some years ago, no justice has been done. In fact, despite concerted, focused and genuine efforts by non-profit organizations and committed individuals, causes of the tragedy - negligence and poor maintenance with impunity by a foreign company in India have not been part of public discourse or school textbooks so far. Some go as far as to suggest that all it took to win over a pliant government and willing prime minister was some wining, dining and promises of massive revenues. The failure of managing Bhopal’s gas leak, and it’s tragic aftermath, reflects a similarity of India prior to economic liberalization. State control failed, and couldn’t shuffle along fast enough to cover its disastrous tracks. In fact, lying to the people, or concealing facts, become priority here. 

Unlike Chernobyl, that has inspired documentaries, books, reportage and literature in big numbers, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy has rarely been touched upon and shown properly by Indians. A BBC documentary titled One Night in Bhopal aside, the only film of note that tells a specific human story of sacrifice is Bhopal Express by Mahesh Mathai (1999).  Bhopali, a recent documentary by Van Maximilian Carlson has explored its aftermath poignantly. Yet popular cinema and TV have more or less left this incident alone. It doesn’t take a genius to add up the fact that courting disapproval from a political party, and engaging in painstaking research, does not motivate the profit minded Indian film industry. Nonetheless, this is a creative void. Raghu Rai’s images still resonate as the most powerful telling of this tragedy. 

Speaking to decider.com, Craig Mazin has expressed passing interest in exploring Bhopal’s tragedy sometime in the future. For us Indians this might be the only hope in capturing a black moment in our postmodern history on a powerful medium like TV.

(The Russian Woodpecker, Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance Film Festival, dealing with Chernobyl, is currently playing on myNK)


Chernobyl / Stellan Skarsgård / Jared Harris / Emily Watson / David Dencik / Ralph Ineson / Craig Mazin / HBO / Hotstar / Sky /

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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