In 1986, in the wee hours of an ordinary April day, a loud boom shook the very foundations of sleepy little Pripyat. ‘Fire at Chernobyl’, said someone; but ‘nothing to worry about’, said another. And so the comrades of Pripyat, a town built by the erstwhile USSR for the families of Chernobyl nuclear power plant workers, did not panic.
The core of reactor number 4 at Chernobyl had exploded, causing fatal exposure to radiation; but the residents of the nearest town didn’t know, so they had no cause for panic. All the firemen from the town were deputed, never to return, and yet, as the town was told things were under control, they didn’t panic.
Instead they – the rest of the men, women and children of the town – gathered on a bridge with a clear view of Chernobyl, socialising and discussing the gigantic luminous fire that could be seen in the distance. The wind carried the toxic particles from the burning nuclear ‘pyre’, blanketing the town with toxic black ash, but Pripyat did not panic. They carried on with their lives even as the fire at the plant raged on. The kids went to school, the parents left behind went about their chores, and went to parks. Nobody panicked, since they didn’t know there was any reason to.
The government cut off all lines of communication for the residents, but still Pripyat wasn’t allowed to panic.
When they finally did panic, it was on the day the government showed up without notice to evacuate the town, forcing them to leave behind their belongings, and their pets. By then, it was too late to save anyone from radiation contamination; too late to not be doomed to a lifetime of sickness, and too late to save children – born and unborn – from death.
Meticulous in detailing the horrors of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, HBO’s 5-episode miniseries Chernobyl, might just break you apart, leaving you struggling to put the pieces back together. And yet, it’s a series you must watch.
There is a sense of doom, of near-apocalypse, of unforgivable sins right from the first episode that begins with scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris, extraordinary per usual) recording his account of the horrors he saw. The show follows his point of view of the disaster and its aftermath. Shout out to Stellan Skarsgard, who, unlike in the Marvel universe, has not been wasted here. Stellan plays Soviet politician Borys Shcherbina, who goes full-circle from scoffing at Legasgov’s panic, to doing what he could to try to bring the Chernobyl crisis under control.
Oscar-nominated actress Emily Watson plays nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk with ease. Watson’s Khomyuk functions like an intelligent woman in a world run by obtuse men drunk on power must: with restraint and monumental patience.
Writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck succeed so completely in recreating the feeling of being trapped in a vicious circle of disaster, death, government incompetence and lies, that you’re no longer the viewer. You’re a part of Chernobyl, of their pain and helplessness of the horror they’re living, and of those to come.
Renck does not, even for a fleeting second, let the audience off the hook. You’re not allowed to look away from the horrors of Chernobyl. The world must remember what happens when human arrogance meets design flaws. What happens when corrective measures are not taken efficiently, swiftly, and by prioritising innocent human lives first.
Of the five episodes, four have been released and are available on Hotstar in India. Watch if you have the stomach for it, watch even if you don’t. For the dangers of not being allowed to question the government for fear of retribution, of being kept in the dark during a life-threatening situation, of playing with nuclear energy – an unstable power – especially by governments that prioritise ‘world image’ over its own people, is a warning no country and its people should take lightly.