This documentary’s title is meant to convey a dual meaning. It is about an assorted tableau of travellers in the unreserved coaches of the great Indian railway system. But there is also an endearing lack of reserve in the ordinary folks encountered by the young filmmakers (producers Akshay Gangwar, Harshit Saran and director Samarth Mahajan, from the media collective Camera And Shorts). It’s almost as if these men and women had been waiting for the camera to come along and lend a reassuring, friendly ear.
The nearly hour-long film was shot over 17 days in 10 trains, criss-crossing the length and breadth of India. It’s a sparse, stripped down travelogue; the subjects occasionally interrupted by the changing view outside as “Leaving Home” by Indian Ocean hums in the background.
The Unreserved doesn’t necessarily break new ground in style or even substance. There is no radical sociological insight or perspective to be found in it. This is a straight-from-the-heart effort about the average person.
Every protagonist featured here remains nameless. Some don’t venture any information on where they come from or their destination (if they did, the makers keep it mysterious). The sole context is their humanity. Truth is, the anonymity makes their stories seem universal and resonant.
First, there are the quirks of train travel itself to consider. The opening few moments includes a montage from different trains, often bursting at the seams with passengers, many contorted into precarious positions. Everyone has a tired, bemused or vacant look on their faces while vendors traipse up and down the bogeys, hawking all manner of items. No matter the location, these fundamentals don’t change.
Primarily though, the film is preoccupied with engaging with people, minus judgement. Some greet the camera with circumspect half-smiles in the beginning and then, start unloading their fear, pain or beliefs. A woman from Delhi beams when she speaks of her plans for a successful career. But a pensive look crosses her face, as she mulls her love life – the man she cares for doesn’t belong to her caste.
Another father is worried sick about his daughter’s health while a battle-scarred mother is running away from a violent husband. The most interesting of these conversations involves a Kashmiri youngster, who matter-of-factly reveals his political allegiances. Public debates on the issue often leave no room for subtleties. Yet, as we witness in this brief exchange, individual identity is a complex and multi-layered concept.
Indians are also a naturally comedic bunch. And they love a good argument. Some of the liveliest moments here deal with tradition, politics, religion and Rajinikanth, the latter providing an amusing contrast two avid Tamil cinema goers.
To be clear, The Unreserved doesn’t necessarily break new ground in style or even substance. There is no radical sociological insight or perspective to be found in it. This is a straight-from-the-heart effort about the average person.
Still, it comes at a crucial time. Urbanisation and technology have sequestered many of us into neat social compartments. We now break bread, make love or talk trash with those who look like us, live like us and think like us. This well-meaning little film is perhaps the nudge we need to step outside our comfortable bubbles and connect with our fellow humans in all their differences.
Watch The Unreserved here