Three film-makers captured over 100 stories from the general compartments of Indian Railways. Now, they’ve compiled the experience in an hour-long film
Indian Ocean’s soundtrack, Leaving Home, plays in the background. Complementing the soundtrack are shots captured from the door of a moving train — the landscape jumps from the snow-capped Himalayas and silhouette of palm trees in Kerala, to the expanse of red soil in Rajasthan, and the thick forests of Assam. The absence of tinted glass on the windows suggests it’s the general compartment.
This is how The Unreserved, an hour-long documentary, opens. Produced by Camera and Shorts, a production house in Andheri, it is directed by Samarth Mahajan (26), along with two team members — Omkar Divekar (26) and Rajat Bhargava (23). The film chronicles stories of people from all over India — from domestic abuse to the financial strain of being a daily wage labourer, to a Brahmin man opposing untouchability.
The stories are remarkably personal. Surely, it wouldn’t have been easy to get strangers to share their struggles on camera. Mahajan agrees, and says that the team’s first interview — that of a fisherman on a train from Mumbai to Okha, Gujarat — backfired. “He was comfortably talking to me about his life, till Omkar unpacked the camera. After that, the fisherman refused to speak,” recalls Mahajan.
Things got better as the journey progressed, though, and they interviewed over a 100 people. Interestingly, Mahajan believes that it was possible because of the all-male crew. “The fact is, women make rural men uncomfortable. With us, the men saw three urban boys interested in talking to them,” he says.
There might be some truth to what he is saying, for the film captures real stories of life-altering struggle (a woman running away from her abusive husband, for instance), and of internalised sexism that continues to thrive in rural India.
For instance, one interview showcases a young couple with two daughters. “I love my daughters. But now, I want a son who will carry my family name,” says the husband. “I have diabetes. I don’t know if a pregnancy is safe in my condition,” says his tearful wife, holding the younger daughter close.
The intimacy of these stories notwithstanding, the film also maintains a degree of detachment — nowhere does the film specify the trains the interviews were shot on, or the names of the interviewees. Mahajan says the anonymity is to avoid any association with the political situation of the region the interviewee belongs to. “This way, the audience can connect with the film on a human level, devoid of peripheral circumstances,” he says.