In August 2011, two young men from Mumbai hopped onto a running train, hung out of the door, skid their feet on the station platform and then leapt out to hit the electric poles alongside the track.
The life-threatening stunt was captured in a low-resolution YouTube video that did the rounds of social media and forced railway authorities to swing into action. The video also caught the attention of Adrien Cothier. The New York City filmmaker, who was on the verge of finishing his first semester of graduation school, decided to meet the boys behind the stunts and make a documentary on them. Train Surfers follows a group of five school dropouts from slums in suburban Mumbai who play cards, dance, zoom around on motorbikes and flaunt their love for deadly stunts.
Cothier neither glorifies nor criticises the amateur stunt artists, but simply turns the camera on them so that we may hear their point of view. “We ignore our parents’ worries,” says one of the boys, whose face is covered by a mask to prevent the railway police from spotting him. “To risk our lives does not bother us. We just enjoy ourselves; we’ll deal with the consequences later.” (The faces of the boys are revealed through the rest of the film, though.)
The stunts are not always enjoyable for viewers, who might be shocked at the sight of the boys casually hanging from moving trains and ducking inside when electric poles approach without losing their grip.
It’s not always a smooth landing. One of the surfers suffered injuries after falling off a train, but he remains undeterred by the threat to his life.
The risk-addicted teenagers from Mumbai’s underprivileged pockets are no different from their counterparts in New York City, the filmmaker said in an interview to the American Film Institute. Cothier was interested in studying the influence of social circumstances on group behaviour. In the second half of the film, the focus shifts from the obsession with train stunts to the strong bonds that unite the boys. These childhood friends share a sense of brotherhood and find ways to fight what they regard as daily boredom. They are aware that they are frittering their lives away, but as one of them tells Cothier, “I actually have thought of becoming someone good in life but I still have time… It’s too early for anyone to make something of this life.”