17 days, 10 train journeys, 3 young filmmakers, 1 camera, and innumerable interactions later emerged ‘The Unreserved’, a National Award-winning film (for Best Non-Feature Film Audiography) directed by IIT Kharagpur graduate Samarth Mahajan. Essentially documenting conversations with people travelling in the general coaches of trains across the country, the one hour film makes an honest, but ambitious, attempt at capturing snippets of their lives on camera. Covering more than a thousand kilometers, Samarth, along with his crew of two - cinematographer Omkar Divekar and assistant director Rajata Bhargava - travelled along the length and breadth of the country, going as far North as Kashmir and as far South as Kanyakumari, totalling an impressive 265 hours in train travel in the unreserved coach, where if they were lucky, they got to have the occasional seat on the floor or on other people’s luggage. While the struggle was definitely real, the film retains a touching note that is very telling of the meaningful journey undertaken by the three, and the lifelong impact it has made on them.
Speaking to Homegrown, Samarth outlines his incredibly expansive journey which started out as an idea to film a previously unexplored demographic and culminated in a National Award.
Homegrown: As an IIT Kharagpur graduate, what inspired you to change gears and get into filmmaking instead?
Samarth Mahajan: “At IIT Kharagpur I got involved in making low-budget 1 minute long ad films for inter-hall competitions. This was my first exposure to any kind of film-making. I also underwent a pan-India train journey called Jagriti Yatra, for budding social entrepreneurs, which opened my eyes to alternate careers.
Post college, I was doing an operations management job. I found it hard to seek meaning in the presentations, excel sheets, and my impact through the work. I realised I had a stronger urge to tell stories and be more connected to people & society. So I quit the job and shifted to Mumbai to pursue my dream of making films.”
HG: How did the idea for ‘The Unreserved’ emerge? Was it something you’d always wanted to do, or were you inspired by something specific?
SM: “The idea emerged organically, over a period of 4-5 months, so any attempt at deconstructing it is going to be an approximation. At Camera and Shorts, we had done projects around travelling on foot, travelling on sea, so naturally we got fixated on doing something around trains. A major inspiration behind the idea was my previous experience of Jagriti Yatra, an 8000 km journey in sleeper class across India to promote social entrepreneurship, which made me quite attached to trains. My own personal experience of travelling unreserved between Kharagpur and Calcutta made me inclined to focus on the unreserved compartment.
While doing preliminary research I came across an essay by Mahatma Gandhi, “Third Class in Indian Railways”, where he describes the state of general compartments in 1917. I was reading it in 2016, and realized nothing much had really changed in 99 years. Yet this important aspect of Indian experience remained undocumented. When I tried to find internet accounts of travelling or conversing in unreserved compartments, I only found foreigners vlogging from the sleeper class. So there was an intuition that the unreserved passengers will have stories to tell, as there was no one hearing them.
The intention behind the choice was to explore the class of Indian Railways which carries almost 95% of its passengers. It is a class where most do not travel out of choice. A sane person will mostly not opt to travel long distances unreserved unless presented with compulsions of economic nature or unplanned events. Everyone there has made a compromise sometime, either in the past or now, and we wanted to talk about those “sometimes”. In the process, we wanted to build a new understanding of an invisible section of our fellow countrymen, leaving behind our prejudices.”
HG: What were the biggest challenges along the way?
SM: “I had undertaken 2-3 hour long unreserved journeys before this project. But 17 days of travel in 10 different unreserved compartments, with some of these journeys being more than 2 days long, was quite a different experience. In a space meant for 90, there would be around 300 people on some routes. Sometimes we stood on one leg, or lied down on the luggage racks, or contemplated sitting in the toilets, and on very lucky days sat on a normal berth. So space was an issue throughout, which we progressively became used to.
At the same time, the emotional involvement increased. Due to the strenuous nature of the journey, I became quite sick by day 12 and even blacked out twice while talking to a person. The amount of emotions I was absorbing was unparalleled to my previous experiences, and this led to a 10 day break post the journey where I was almost mute because the mind was so saturated.
Talking to women, specially in their 30’s and 40’s, was a task on some routes, as their husbands would start answering for them. While traveling through most of South India, language remained a problem. No wonder the only major story from South is the one where I am talking about Rajinikanth, as that was honestly the most comfortable topic for me.”
HG: How did you go about the whole process, and deal with said challenges?
SM: “On the whole, we accepted the physical and emotional challenges as part of the process. We had discussed about them before starting the journey. On 3 out of the 10 trains, the ones which were 2-3 day long journeys, we had bookings in the 3A class to make sure we had an option to take rest - physically and emotionally. After I blacked out twice during a conversation, we took a day’s break on Vivek Express, which is the longest train journey in India at 84 hours. We crossed IIT Kharagpur on our way, and a number of juniors came down to the station to meet and give us healthier food. That really energized us, and made us forget about the stresses.
When it came to talking to women, I just had to keep on trying till I found single women who were comfortable enough to share their story with me, or a couple where the husband would not interrupt his wife. I tackled the language problem similarly. I had to keep on trying to find people who could speak English. Luckily I managed to find three such people together, who also had some insightful thoughts about Rajinikanth and Tamil politics.”
HG: What is the primary message you want to get across through the film?
SM: “The film means different things to different people, based on where they locate themselves in the social hierarchies. I can share the message that I personally derived from making and watching the film. There’s a whole world beyond our immediate circles which we refuse to engage with, based on our presumptions. Engaging with this India, which we have become used to not seeing and hearing, can teach us a lot about ourselves and our privilege. Honest conversations can be cathartic. So go out and talk.”
HG: What was your favorite part of the journey?
SM: “Kashmir. We had deliberated a lot before making Kashmir a part of the journey, since the Banihal-Baramulla DMU is disconnected from the mainland railways. In some ways, this seemed metaphorical for the state of Kashmir.
Beyond the maddeningly beautiful landscape, just that one conversation in Kashmir, which is a part of the film, made me aware that the act of rebellion can also be a product of discontentment against the Indian state for simple reasons like lack of employment and basic amenities.”
HG: If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently?
SM: “If I could reset to March 2016, I would have collaborated with friends who had the ability to converse empathetically in languages beyond Hindi. Apart from doing a golden quadrilateral on the trains, I would also take diagonal journeys cutting across the centre of our country. That way the film would be a truer representation of conversations during a pan-India journey. I would have a female crew member, to bring in another perspective and enable so many conversations that could not happen due to how interactions between men and women are seen by our society.”
HG: Was there any particular instance, or an anecdote, that stood out for you?
SM: “There are innumerable memories and anecdotes from the journey:
- When we entered the Delhi sub-urban area, we met a yoga teaching Dada ji who was more flexible than a rubber band. Intrigued by his unreal postures, many passengers tried to ape him. A compartment full of people trying to unsuccessfully replicate an “asana” presented a unique picture. Luckily, we also captured some of it on camera and that’s the story the film starts with.
- While moving north we kept getting a lot of advice on how to behave in Kashmir. Many people asked us to avoid interacting with the youth. But once we started talking to a group of three students on board the Banihal-Baramulla DMU, we forged such a strong friendship that they changed their entire day schedule just to make sure we see their state with proper guidance. They were to get down at Srinagar but came with us till Baramulla for this purpose. When we found out we do not have enough time to move away from the station, they did not fret. They simply started telling us more about Kashmir right there. Numbers were exchanged, invitations were extended and some stereotypes were shattered.
- Tired of the train food, after sending out an appeal for food on social media, we received an inventory of three days at Hijli station from a set of college juniors from IIT Kharagpur who thought it would be a good idea to feed their hungry alumnus.
- While travelling through Tamil Nadu none of us was proficient in any south Indian languages so communication was bound to be a problem. Short on things to have animated conversations over, Rajinikanth seemed like a safe bet and as soon as I mentioned Rajini to the first hindi speaking Tamilian I met, a transgender came over and started speaking of all his favorite films. While we were conversing around 20-25 people kept shouting from different places in the compartment about the questions I should ask him. Once he was done gushing over Thalaiva, he divulged he was a final year Computer Science student who sometimes takes this route to collect some pocket money.”
HG: Are you working on any new projects?
SM: “I am currently working on ‘Hum Le Ke Rahenge’, a project on protests at Jantar Mantar Road, the 1 km long protest street in Delhi which was shut to protesters last year in October. The project encompasses a series of short documentaries on singular protests, and a feature documentary on the street. The series aims to tap into the rich repository of collective action in India. It amplifies dissenting voices from all parts of the country, irrespective of any political inclination. The shorts are available on the Facebook and YouTube channel of Kahaani Wale. We were recently at DocedgeKolkata, a pitching forum for asian documentaries, where the work-in-progress film received recognitions.”
You can watch the trailer for the documentary here.
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