Made on a grand scale, Yatra, which was directed by Shyam Benegal, featured slice-of-life stories of people on a train journey. The 15-part series, which was aired in 1986, starred Om Puri, Neena Gupta, Ila Arun, Mohan Gokhale and Harish Patel, among others. The show charted the length and breadth of the country, from Kanyakumari to Jammu Tawi and Jaisalmer to Doom Dooma. It was divided into two parts, and Puri starred in both.
“Yatra was sponsored by the Indian Railways. I chose the two longest journeys one could take by train for the show. It was an extraordinary experience, as I had several talented actors and technicians working on the series. We had a train at our disposal. The show introduced different parts of India not only to the audience, but also to us,” says Benegal.
The director also reveals that the crew of the show, which was almost entirely shot on a train, used to have music sessions whenever the train used to stop for a new engine. There used to be impromptu performances as well. “It was exceptional. It was a great adventure. The railway department was very cooperative. They used to make way for our train at many stops, while at some stations we used to wait for our turn, as we were on a special one.”
The unit had a schedule to keep up to, so the shoot used to be on most of the time. “Once we shot a marvelous moon night in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, where we had a Kalbelia (folk dance) group, who performed, not only for the show, but also for the unit, post the shoot. Later, in Madhya Pradesh, we halted in the jungles, and went wandering around during a full moon night. We were told that we might suddenly find an elephant staring at us. Thankfully, nothing of that sort happened,” says the director, adding, “I don’t think anyone will be able to make a show like this today.”
In Patna, Bihar, a station master told the locals about the shooting. As a result, a huge, uncontrollable crowd of 50,000 to 60,000 people arrived at the station. “We had to leave from that station in a hurry or we would have been mobbed. We knew no one would be able to handle the crowd, so it was best to leave,” says Benegal.
In Assam, we came across a few baby elephants, who were playing in the water. When elephants cross train tracks, they often destroy them. The tracks have to be re-laid then. “We had to face a similar situation during our journey. It took 24 hours before the officials set the track rights, and we could pass through,” adds Benegal.