The Indian railway network covers an area of 65,000 kilometers. And with a population density of 464 people every square kilometer, our trains see a person and a story every step of the way. "Unreserved" is a film that picks up a few of these stories along a cathartic journey across India, in the general compartment of its trains.
The film takes us along this ride, giving us a window seat view of changing landscapes and changing contexts of the people aboard. The conversations captured in this film are so varied in nature and emotion; yet rely on the universality of the connection a good conversation can build. We hear and see stories of a lady on the run from her abusive husband, a boy talking about his love story, a showcase of an 81-year-old man's quirky talents, people shifting base for employment, about a Kashmiri boy's favourite cricket team and so much more. The camera is placed beside them throughout, in rough frames and at an uncomfortably close distance at times. The visual of the entire film is almost from the perspective of the viewer – you might as well have hopped on the train.
An unforgettable moment in the film was when a teary-eyed father shares his fear of losing his daughter to brain cancer and a vendor interrupts the frame, shoving his box into the man's face. The ruthless lack of space in the compartment comes through with discomfort of knowing that thousands of people with stories like him travel across the country every day. We all share a space but there is such an abandon of people and problems, that it becomes difficult to share anything beyond that. The film doesn't take a stance on or provide a separate dialogue through its runtime. It doesn't show any of these people with the lens of sympathy or judgement. The film simply is about conversations, that we as viewers get to sit in on.
The film, directed by Samarth Mahajan, premiered at Film SouthAsia in 2017 and is also a National Award-winning film. But I happened to watch the film just this year and I must say, I am glad I didn't get to watch it any earlier. Watching this film after the year we've all been through, was so very therapeutic. This film's essence lies in the bitter-sweet, yet fulfilling feeling of shared conversation and intimacy with strangers. Ever since the lockdown travel has become a restricted, cautious and arduous procedure. The site of sitting so close by the arm of a stranger on the train and asking them about their families seems like a frame of fiction. The reason why watching this documentary moved me so much is because it reminded me of a what it is like to be wedged between a circus of people, travelling to a shared destination. The film makes you miss people and gives you the closest experience of shared space and intimacy which allows for stories to flow.
This film is special because it will leave anybody that watches it with a reminder for the next time they are around strangers- that once you start conversation and share stories, you will be surprised at all life and perspective that exists around you.