Alice Sharma, speaks to filmmaker Samarth Mahajan, who travelled for 17 days, across 12,000 kilometre to record stories of travellers across India
The General compartment of the Indian railways is not for the fainthearted—limbs squished together, breathing the smells of sweat, sharing stories with complete strangers, dissecting life and the times—all in a small metal box spilling over with more people than it’s equipped to handle. A kind of a self-propelled social welfare system which, The Unreserved, a documentary released by the production company Camera and Shorts. Filmmaker Samarth Mahajan, travelled with cinematographer, Omkar Divekar and assistant director, Rajat Bhargava, for 17 days, in 10 different trains, for over 12,000 kilometers, from Baramullah to Kanya Kumari, in an attempt to capture the essence of life inside these unreserved compartments and the people who use them.
The idea for the film came to them in 2015, but they were apprehensive about a couple of things, “Initially we planned on a single train journey and thought we’d shuttle between different classes but that didn’t really work out. About 3-4 months later, we thought of this project.” Ever since he went on the Jagriti Yatra in 2012 ( a 15 day train journey that takes you 8,000 Kms through India) Mahajan was fascinated by the idea of documenting a rail journey . While researching for his train project, he came across an article written by Mahatma Gandhi on the third class in Indian Railways which then acted as a catalyst for this Pan India journey focusing on people in the General compartment.
The film opens humorously to an old man showcasing his many talents, a few minutes into it, rhythms of Leaving Home by Indian Ocean play in the background. As the film gears into momentum, people share their tales of domestic violence, societal pressure, doomed romance, poverty and personal narratives “In the beginning people were uncomfortable talking but when I told them about myself, they engaged more. Also we restricted our equipment, so that nobody gets scared seeing all the cameras,” says Mahajan. Reminiscing some of the most interesting conversations Mahajan says, “All were equally interesting, but the conversation with the Kashmiri man stood out for me. I never expected such a frank conversation,” he adds, “also the conversation with the transgender person broke a lot of pre-conceived notions I had of these people. Nobody expected that I could initiate a serious conversation with a transgender.”
A conversation which struck the right chord was with a woman, who under the patriarchal system was asked to conceive a male child after two girls, despite being diabetic. “We have to continue our name forward, its important but we don’t have a problem with girls,” explains the woman’s husband.
The actual length covered on this journey is 12,000, in Vivek express in 82.5 hours. The 17 day journey took a toll on Mahajan when he blacked out during one of the interview, he says, “The food was really bad. It took me 10 days to recover after the journey. The motion of the train has never left me.” According to the ministry of Railways, out of 13 million people served by the network, nearly 12 million are unreserved passengers. “90 per cent of the labor class and migrant workers travel unreserved. Most of them are unable to afford a ticket.” says Mahajan. Further telling us about the condition of Railways in India he says, “It’s very filthy, during our journey we never saw anyone coming and cleaning even the toilets of the General compartment.”
On his takeaways from this journey Mahajan says, “I realised that for the privileged class, the India they live in is the only existing India. For us other classes don’t have any emotional value. These lower classes are neglected and need someone to talk and share their lives.” He adds, “Now it is difficult for me to talk to people and not think of their back stories and get involved.”
Keeping the religions, the social hierarchies aside, the common man in Non A.C third class is away from politics of any kind. Empathising with each other’s story, they adjust and help to keep a foot inside the train.
Watch the documentary below.