“We fell in love without seeing each other,” says a voice that cannot be seen, as we are treated to shifting visuals of fields, bridges and water bodies, as seen through a window.
The voice goes on to explain, “I had visited her village once, so she had seen me. A few days later I got a call from her; she said it was a misdial… we finally met after a year.”
He can now be seen. A man in his early 20s, the fatigue of a hectic journey written all over him, stretches and proceeds with his story. He is interrupted by the steady rattle of the train; it gets louder and louder and eventually his voice fades out.
The narrator is from Dibrugarh, Assam, and is travelling down the longest rail route in the country — from Assam in the north-east to Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India.
He’s sharing the story with three friends who are in the berth facing him, documenting what people talk about in general compartments.
Several slices of life like this one come together in an hour-long documentary called Unreserved, the result of a 17-day journey spanning about 25,000 km, all of it spent in the unreserved compartments of long-distance trains.
These unusual journeymen were Mumbai-based filmmakers Samarth Mahajan, 26, Rajat Bhargava, 23, and Omkar Divekar, 26. As they tweeted photographs and anecdotes, their hashtag #unreserved went viral. This was nearly a year ago, last March.
“We met while we were all working on projects about boats and buses as modes of transport, for the production company, Camera and Shorts,” says Divekar. “We had made short documentaries of 10 to 15 minutes before this and the plan initially was to make a short one on a train journey too. Then Samarth suggested we travel across the country in general compartments and turn that into a short flick.”
Trains in India have always fascinated me, adds Mahajan. “I chose general compartments because I could not find much footage on them — and I felt that the close quarters and false sense of intimacy would make for interesting conversations.”
He assumed right. The 1-hour film — gleaned from more than 40 hours of footage — features an octogenarian ventriloquist from Maharashtra who sprung another surprise with some knotty yoga poses, a daily wage earner who is trying to get as much work as possible to pay for his daughter’s brain tumour surgery, a brief argument on dowry and lots more.
Watch the octogenarian ventriloquist from Maharashtra do some knotty yoga poses
“There is no concept of personal space in crowded compartment like this. What made things fun was that, as soon as you talk to a passenger it turns into a group discussion,” Mahajan says.
Unreserved will be released in the second week of February on YouTube and will also be sent out on the festival circuit.
“We had not planned to turn the journey into a feature-length film,” Divekar says. “But every time we took out our camera and started shooting, people came forward with their stories.”
The journey was not all peachy, though. In Kashmir, they were suddenly hit with sub-zero temperatures and snow, neither of which they were prepared for.
And the journey from Delhi to Dibrugarh, Assam, exposed them to the worst overcrowding, the filthiest compartments and the most unusable loo in all their 17 days.
“We just could not move our equipment. The compartment was filthy. It was so crowded that even the toilet had been turned into a seat, with a wooden plank placed over it,” says Divekar, laughing at the memory. “We went in to shoot that bit, and it took us nearly an hour to jostle our way back to the door.”
The end of the journey did bring some relief, he admits.
“But we cherish the memories and we’re looking forward to taking the film to as many people as possible,” Mahajan says. “The journey made us realise how insular we have become today and how little we know about people right around us. I hope the film gets that message across.”
Unreserved will be released at noon on February 15. You can check out the Camera And Shorts Youtube channel here.