The Unreserved: A Feature Film Made Of People And Their Stories In Indian Trains

Just the other day, I came across an unassuming feature on YouTube which talked about people in a new and riveting way. After I was done watching it, I thought to myself – Isn’t this the most obvious thing that everyone feels? Aren’t these the stories that we take back home after completing a long journey?. The stories shared along the long train journies. Unreserved, the film is all about that and more. It documents life, people, stories, and dreams of passengers traveling in the Unreserved general category of Indian trains. From an 80 Yr Old Man, showcasing his talents in mimicry, to an ambitious girl laying out her dreams (and hopes of getting married to the man she loves), to a couple of friends to whom life is all about the adventures they take up, and to two brothers who are the thickest of pals. Take a step back, and you’ll see something beautiful in this feature of confessions. You’ll see a reflection of our lives in it’s most stripped down and relatable colors. Of course, I had to contact the people, (in this case the creative director of this effort – Samarth Mahajan) behind this feature, The Unreserved, and understand the story behind this unexpected yet striking documentary.  The excerpts of it follow…

Inception Of The Idea And Getting Funds For It….

In fact, the preparation started in August 2015, when the idea to shoot a film on train germinated. This was our first major project, and we wanted to have an independence during the film-making process. We were already making money through filming corporate videos for start-ups and used the same source to self-fund the project. This also enabled us to keep the engagement with audiences during the journey free of any advertising. For our future projects, we will do a more holistic search for funds and we do hope that this film will stand as a testimony to the kind of efforts we can put in to justify those investments.

On The Documentary Style Of Making The Film And The Montage Of Stories To Feature…

It was always intended to be non-fictional. Also, we also wanted to turn the mainstream notion of “documentary” upside-down. Many people feel that documentaries are only made on social issues, or that documentaries cannot be engaging or emotional because they have to be informational. We wanted to change this perception, and that is why the film has been made without voice-overs, or conventional interview set ups. These are real conversations, and the audience experiences them because the film is observational in nature. To be honest, we actually started out with the idea to make a 15-20 min short film. The length got determined by the number of distinct themes we could touch with the stories we had collected, without diluting the experience of being on this journey with us. There was no pre-fixation over the time. Anadi (my editor) and I, debated over which stories to keep and which ones to leave out. With the kind of strictness that we applied to every narrative, we did not have as much content as required to make a two-hour-long film.

On the reports of covering 25000 Kms, And interesting anecdotes Of The Unreserved…

The actual length we covered was close to 12000 km, and I do not how it started being reported as 25000 km down the line! The journey started in Mumbai Central and moved in the order of Okha-Delhi-Katra-Banihal-Baramulla-Back to Katra-Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari-Back to Mumbai. The longest journey was the Vivek Express, at 82.5 hours (yes!), from Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari. I found the Okha-New Delhi line the most interesting because that was one route on which people, from very diverse backgrounds, really opened up. The discussion on Dowry and Village Politics, as well as the one on Reservations, and the Khwaja song that you see around midway into the film, all took place in this train. The mix of Gujaratis, Rajasthanis, Haryanvis and Punjabis played a major role in making things interesting.

Team and Equipment, Hurdles and Hostility…

The whole journey was planned in a very lean way. We wanted to do the shoot in one go and had decided we will only stay out of the trains for one night at maximum, that too for planning requirements of a gap between two journeys. I wanted to keep the crew minimal and had initially wanted to just have one cinematographer with me while I conversed with people. But there was a practical issue of managing other logistics, keeping the equipment secure, and also helping with general research during the project. So we decided to freeze a crew number of 3 – Omkar, Rajat and I. We had initially planned to move in the following order: Mumbai-Delhi-Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari-Mumbai, and had left for the journey on 22nd Feb. But Jat agitations ruined our plans, and we came back with two weeks of postponement. That is when I added Okha and Baramulla to the plan and made it a journey to the extreme corners of Indian Railways. We used a handheld 5D and a Zoom H6 for sounds. So the equipment was not very intrusive or extensive. The biggest hurdle was to physically maneuver our bodies through the crowded compartments, which we managed to do with a lot of push and pull. We did face hostility once in Gujarat when one person came to us and told us to not encroach people’s private spaces or to annoy them. But when I described what I was trying to do, to just hold conversations about people’s lives and that there was no commercial interest involved, he calmed down, and in fact ended up conversing with me on camera. Apart from that people were very helpful, because we made it a point to explain our motivations to them so that they did not feel paranoid or exploited.

On revisiting a part of the journey if given a chance, and collating issues along the way via The Unreserved…

I would undertake the Kashmir part again. It was so beautiful and new to all the three of us that we could just be there for the sheer sights. Apart from that, the conversations and interactions there were very insightful because most of our opinions are based on second-hand accounts or uninformed narratives we hear from people who just do not have any visibility of what is happening in Kashmir. It is such a multi-layered issue that I would love to go back and talk to more people there. We have started releasing small snippets on the Facebook page of Camera And Shorts. With time, you will get to see more and more of the stories which were not in the film as well as some behind the scenes stories.

Ambitions and Future Projects And The Journey After The Unreserved…

We have been taking up projects which push us into new directions. We do have ambitious ideas, but not in a very crystallized state as of now. There is an idea which plays around the notion of Borders and Boundaries. Even we are not sure as to how experimental it can become, but it will definitely be different from “The Unreserved” as I want to experiment with form this time. Let us see how that materializes.

Since we’ve known the story behind ‘The Unreserved’, let’s watch The feature itself….Sit back, and see ages of lives unfold in under an hour..

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