“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, the debt is paid.” Chernobyl is a haunting miniseries that dramatically recreates the 1986 nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl in erstwhile USSR. It depicts, with extreme veracity and precision, the characters, events and their subsequent interactions with each other in order to give us an experience that should not and cannot be forgotten.
If a few days ago, someone would have asked me about the greatest disasters in the history of mankind, I would have, without a doubt, cited the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria. The destruction of vast and profound knowledge would have hurt me more than anything else. Chernobyl has completely changed my perspective. It has allowed me to take an objective look at the world around me, with sympathy and concern for all. In today’s world, it is quite odd how we still manage to carry a shred of sympathy for our fellow men. Whether that sympathy stems from the heart or is a result of socially conditioned normative behaviour is a debate for another time. But it is truly extraordinary that we, a race of murderers, killers and backstabbers are also a race of protectors and truthseekers.
After a long time, I have seen a modern piece of art that has left me pondering over the meaning of humanity. This might be quite surprising to a few people who have watched Chernobyl, for it does not explicitly deal with those particular issues. But underneath the constant war against disaster, beneath the rotten underbelly of the Soviet Union, lies instances of bravery, of courage, of kindness, of veracity. Tales not of human transcendence but of human nature. How far we have fallen that we seek comfort in such small and often insignificant gestures?
Do excuse me if I am getting a bit philosophical here, but that is what the show coerces or rather empowers us to do. The entire journey is the search for the cause of the great disaster. It is a search for truth. Chernobyl helped me cultivate respect for people who have, in any way, been part of such disasters world over. It has taught me how the egotistical desires of a few could lead to the melancholic demise of millions. The series made me genuinely feel sorry for the many innocent lives that were lost in the event. How very ironic it is that we possess the capacity for cooperation that often stems from mutual benefit as a symbiotic relationship but grows into something that is much more parasitic in nature, wherein one lifeform seeks benefits from the other and the other complies selflessly.
I always knew about Chernobyl. I had read about it. The story was pretty common. It was trudging around in some dark corner in the back of my mind. And now I curse my own ignorance. Most of the time, I too am a narcissistic and self-centred individual. That is what our society, after all, conditions us to become. But Chernobyl made me question that heavily. It made a staunch rationalist emotional. It made me care for people who never showed their faces on the screen. Such was the power of this magnificent show.
The acting was so believable it felt more like a documentary than a drama series. Each and every dialogue, setpiece and soundtrack was crafted meticulously. The perfect portrayal of looming despair, impending doom, the futility of grand power structures and undying hope of salvation that pierces it all, makes this show something that could definitely influence the ideologies of the viewers.
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The plot itself is quite tragic. You will be sorely disappointed if you are expecting triumphant tales. Each character is well-written and executed. The choices they make and the motives they are driven by, all feel very natural. It feels as though I could have made the same choices as any of the characters if I were in their shoes. There is no villain per se. They are just humans. Humans who could make mistakes, who could work to rectifying those mistakes, who run away cowardly from the frontlines or who could valiantly take a bullet for their comrades. And I could have been any of them.
One instance that strongly resonates with this sentiment is a veteran soldier giving advice to a new recruit after his first kill. He says that after you have killed a man you feel that you have lost a piece of yourself, that you are not you anymore. Then you wake up the next day and realise that it was you all along, who pulled the trigger. Moments of strength can be fostered in the weakest of minds and vice versa.
What makes the events in this show most peculiar to me is the willingness of people to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Self-sacrifice would seem to be a rare value. Yet you would be surprised to know how many people stood up to the task. Their reason? ‘It had to be done.’ They willingly went into the beast’s mouth. These men were fully aware of the consequences. They knew that if they survived, they would be dead men walking. The ghost of Chernobyl would haunt them for the rest of their lives. But still, they toiled on since they were the only thing standing between death and some sixty million innocent people.
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Chernobyl raises many profound questions. But what it stressed on most is the truth. It often questions the values of truth. And hence, in doing so, it reminds us of our own insignificance. It does not tell us that the truth cannot be hidden for long. But it does tell us that whatever you do the truth is always there, scratching at the curtain of lies you have put up in order to hide it. And it will always be there, at the back of your mind, nibbling away at you. You can never say that no one will know the truth. For you will be well aware of it. There is always someone who knows, in most cases the liar himself.
Another sentiment hits hard. We usually think about the price of truth. We often think, in many situations, that it would be more beneficial to replace the truth with a lie. But here we are compelled to ponder over the consequences of those lies. The price that we owe to that hidden truth gets completely ignored. We are compelled into a state of eternal debt that is both mentally taxing and inescapable. The question of pride often forces one to take up this mountain of debt but sooner or later we come face to face with our choices and more often than not, regret the lies we once told.
We are forced to look into the mirror. We’re made to understand that we do have to pay a price for the lies we stir up. The truth will not go anywhere. It will be waiting patiently, biding its time to strike at the perfect moment, like an eagle eyeing its prey.
For every lie, we do owe truth its freedom.
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What is one of the most recurring themes in the show is the devotion of people to the Soviet Union. This theme is not only literal but actually metaphorical as well. It does not praise blind devotion or unfounded and illogical patriotism. It shuns the concept of chauvinism and extreme nationalism that is harmful to one’s nation in the long run. Lies and deceit to one’s own self can only get you so far. And inevitably, will lead to your downfall. After all, as William Blake once said, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Similarly, humanity is an inquisitive beast. We are meant to be curious.
What was literally attacked in Chernobyl was the blind patriotism people had for their country. The disaster at Chernobyl is depicted not as a fault of those who pushed the reactor to its limits, but as a fault of the State for covering up their own shortcomings. They provided faulty fail-safes, and hence a false sense of security.
The great nation was engulfed by its own pride. The show tries to demonstrate that no one is above the truth, not even a nation as great as the Soviet Union. Their many secrets led to their incredible downfall. Their want to be not humiliated was what humiliated them most. A series of lies and deceits are woven by the country. Why? Propaganda. The price? Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of human lives. The official Soviet records, to this day, state the number of dead as 31 when all other figures range from at least 4000 to 93,000. It has remained unchanged since 1987.
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It’s explosive in its reconstruction of what went wrong and the war-like efforts that were taken to contain the fallout and limit the damage. The atmosphere that was created and consistently maintained was unlike anything I have ever seen. Most TV shows often start off strong but midway, they fail to deliver on the promise of an engaging narrative (I am still salty, Game of Thrones). But this show, perhaps owing to its 5-hour runtime was able to keep me on the edge of my seat for the entire duration.
Chernobyl is brave in what it does with what it has. It is not afraid to show the bleakest side of humanity while simultaneously superimposing it with the brightest side as well. It often depicts both these sides of human nature through a singular individual. Hence, the characters receive a certain amount of realistic depth that is rare and wonderful. This also leads to their interactions becoming more human and hence, feels less forced. The organic characters in an extremely pressurised and stressful environment create a duality that is able to achieve perfect balance. This alone makes it a show worth watching. Coupled with its other accomplishments, it becomes a masterpiece of an artwork that both satisfies you and at the same time leaves you with a void in your heart.
Yes, it may have taken some liberties with the truth but the story it tells is of the state coverup, incompetence of key engineers and ultimately the heroism of ordinary people, few brave nuclear scientists and a senior party functionary. The world owes a debt to them and their selfless sacrifice. Their bravery in the face of impending doom is exemplary.
The five-hour rendition is bleak and unremittingly stark but it’s engaging and educative.
Where to Watch: Hotstar
By Sanjay Trehan, Deepjyoti Roy