Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was famously thrown off a train in 1893 in South Africa despite holding a first class ticket. He vowed to fight against racial discrimination, and his non-violent resistance spread from Africa to India and then the rest of the world. Satyagraha may not be as popular today, but one look inside the unreserved compartments of Indian trains is sufficient to declare that Gandhi’s struggle survives in the oddest of places.
The unreserved bogey of the average long-distance train teems with human limbs trying to fit together and breathe in a closed space. Yet, in keeping with Gandhi’s grand design, peace is irrevocably maintained, as is evident from the documentary The Unreserved.
The hour-long film has been released by the production company Camera and Shorts on its YouTube channel. Directed by Samarth Mahajan, The Unreserved captures the lives of train passengers travelling cattle class across different trains.
In 2016, Mahajan and his crew of two – cinematographer Omkar Divekar and assistant director Rajat Bhargava – embarked on a 17-day journey that totalled up to 265 hours in ten passengers trains. The skeletal crew went from Mumbai to Kashmir and Assam and Kanyakumari.
The film opens with an elderly man displaying his many talents, including an imitation of a dog’s bark and the ability to twist his elastic arms into an intricate knot. It is presumably this kind of entertainment that makes such long-distance journeys endurable in unreserved compartments bustling with unexamined lives.
The buoyant rhythm of the track Leaving Home, composed by the rock band Indian Ocean, plays in the background as the filmmakers shot the ins and outs of a moving train and spoke to passengers for whom rail travel isn’t as adventurous as it is for the men who are filming them.
The stories that emerge during the trip are often filled with despair, but hope also lurks. People share sordid tales of domestic violence, poverty, ill-health, doomed romance and fickle friendship with refreshing candour. They discuss social issues concerning them, such as the caste system, dowry, local politics, and governance (or the lack thereof).
In a poignant moment, a young Kashmiri man is torn between his love for Pakistani cricketers and his nationalism for India. “I will support India when I get a job,” he says, echoing the feelings of many young exiles who leave home in search of work. A secure job also serves as a second-class ticket.