Dirty overcrowded cars filled with boorish people– whether we’d like to admit it or not, this is what most middle class Indians think of unreserved compartments on Indian trains. It’s also as much thought as we might spare, watching hundreds of men and women rush to an incoming train to secure for themselves a few inches of space in which to travel thousands of kilometres.
But inside these compartments is a rich tapestry of lives utterly different from our own, that many of us never learn about, says filmmaker Samarth Mahajan.
Samarth should know, having spent 17 days travelling 12,000 kilometres around the country in unreserved compartments together with cinematographer Omkar Divekar and Assistant Director Rajat Bhargav. The end result of their journey is possibly a first-of-its-kind film called The Unreserved.
“The trigger was realising that although unreserved travellers make up 80 to 85% of train commuters, we never actually talk about them, there’s never been a film about them,” he says.
Samarth is a part of a Mumbai filmmaking initiative called Camera and Shorts, and explains that Unreserved evolved out of a series of projects about travel. “We had done a project on a journey based on walking, where one of our team members walked from Delhi to Ajmer. In another project, we went into the Arabian Sea with fisherman, to see how fishing is done.”
Riding trains to the corners of India, from Okha in Gujarat to Baramullah in Kashmir to Dibrugarh in Assam to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, The Unreserved maps a world of stories of people with limited means travelling the length and breadth of the country for everything from meagre work opportunities to family emergencies to fulfilling long-held dreams of seeing the world.
What stuck with Samarth most from the thousands of kilometres of journeys, was the willingness of people to talk, to reach out to their fellow travellers. In his everyday world in Mumbai, he explains, the most common complaint he hears is “we’ve become all too isolated and mistrusting of each other.”
And the stories that emerged from these hundreds of conversations left their mark. “We live in a bubble. I can be in my place, be with people of my class, party, all the time, have a very misconstrued picture of India in my mind. But India is so big, and there is so much out there to see and so many people to know about,” he says, adding that words like diversity don’t come close to grasping the sheer variety and difference he encountered.
What stays with Samarth more than a year after he completed the journey are the stories of resilience he hears. Like a woman the crew met on the train from Delhi to Dibrugarh, who had taken the train to escape an abusive husband. Tired of the repeated beatings she had taken from her husband, she had decided to make her own life in her village, come what may. Taking a late night train so her husband could not find her, “She was literally on an escape from Delhi,” says Samarth.
Then there are the stories of entire villages and districts of men leaving places like Malda in West Bengal in search of the meagre work opportunities that a boom in construction in Kerala offers, often not returning to their families for months or years on end.
“What I really started feeling was respect because it takes a lot of courage to just leave your home and take it up as a way of life. They are not doing it out of selfish interests, they are doing it for their families,” explains Samarth.
Even the physical conditions of their travel, he says, is a story of struggle. “Specially say on the Delhi to Dibrugarh route, which passes through Bihar, I had no space to even move a step. There were 300 people in a space that is meant for 90 people,” he says, describing the various ways they had to adapt to their journeys. “We slept on luggage racks, on the floor, even sat in toilets sometimes,” he says.
But it wasn’t just the physical experience that was taxing.
In the first few days of travel, for instance, he often spoke to his subjects about relationships, dwelling on his own recent issues in the area. “And I accidentally met a lot of people who had troubled love lives. That was something which directly connected to what I was experiencing in life. But also it made me realise how trivial my problems were – because these people were facing issues of, say, inter-caste marriage… it was just not possible for these people to be together. It’s an impossibility,” he explains.
Just as memorable, adds Samarth, was the warmth and generosity of the many people he met along the way.
One instance that stays with him is of a group of Kashmiri students, who cancelled their own plans in Srinagar to travel with the team up to Baramullah and show them a place held close to their hearts.
“And that token of friendship was something that I did not expect. It had never happened to me. That people changed their own schedule to show you around, because they love their place. And because they don’t want you to come away with a wrong idea about it,” he says.
In Kashmir, and elsewhere, the many stereotypes and conceptions he had begun his journey with were broken down for him. Narrating a conversation around the idea of representing Prophet Muhammad in films, he says, the sheer variety of views coming up surprised him.
And for all the variety of views confronting him on every issue from the mundane to the significant, no conversation ever resulted in ill-will among the passengers.
“Those were the times people were being attacked everywhere… being called anti-national and against Indian culture,” he says of the journeys undertaken in March last year. “Those kinds of things were completely missing in the general compartments. People would maybe take offense for three minutes, but then the conversation would move on and people would too.”
The Unreserved is being released on Wednesday, February 15 on the Camera and Shorts YouTube channel. Watch the trailer for the film here: