Going by sheer scale of ambition, Shyam Benegal’s 15-part series Yatra on Doordarshan in 1986 remains unsurpassed even in these days of insane production budgets and special effects. Shot almost entirely on a train charting the course of the Himsagar Express (the longest-running train at that time from Kanyakumari to Jammu Tawi) and the Tripura Express (Jaisalmer to Guwahati), the 15-part series was a collage of picture postcards from unsullied corners of India.
The series came at a time when ‘saffron’ was not yet such a loaded colour, and not much was made of a Muslim gynaecologist delivering the baby of a Punjabi woman on the train, or an ailing Hindu monk and his protégé sharing their wisdom with their co-passengers and an Islamic scholar having a brief exchange with passengers on secularism and political interference in religion.
More importantly, this was India before Air Deccan, when everyone from senior public sector executives to bridegrooms travelled by the railways, sometimes in unreserved compartments.
Yatra comprises short stories about each of the passengers who traverse the country from south to north and west to east. Indian Army jawan Gopalan Nair (Om Puri) sometimes watches from the sidelines and sometimes getting drawn into their lives. Against the sweet rhythm of the locomotive, couples, families, lovers, friends, mentors and strangers, share their food, fears, philosophies, little disappointments and victories. There is a robbery, a recovery, a fatal accident, a suicide attempt, sexual harassment and more.
The bereaved parents of a girl killed because of dowry foster a heavily pregnant woman abandoned by her in-laws for failing to bear them a male heir. A young MBA aspirant falls in love with the daughter of an overbearing father. A whistle-blower, who is on the run from goons entrusts his most precious documents to his saviours. A group of theatre performers, who lose a team member to the lure of Mumbai’s entertainment industry, nearly implode because of infighting. A foreigner who has come to India to look for her grandfather’s grave confides to rank strangers about her disappointment when she finds out that he did not die in the Afghan War of 1936, but was felled by cholera instead.
Benegal, one of the finest storytellers of our times, treats each story with equal empathy and always stops sort of being preachy. We are unwittingly drawn into the cycle of meet, greet, engage and disembark that await the passengers. The grieving elderly couple takes care of the pregnant girl like their own, but when they are invited by her parents to be their guests, they politely refuse. Their lives may have briefly intertwined, but like everyone else on the train, they have their own journey to complete.
Since Yatra was made possible by the largesse of the Indian Railways, which provided the filmmaker with a 10-bogey train for 50 days at the cost of Rs 30 lakhs, the series often shone an indulgent light on the system and its staff. But the near-documentary style makes for excellent viewing even today, as you feast your eyes on the hot idli-vadas at the Trivandrum station canteen, look out for the peacocks darting across the tracks near Jaipur or get a glimpse of the Taj Mahal as the train pulls into Agra. The elegant cinematography by National Award-winning cinematographer Jehangir Chowdhury makes the dreariest countryside and monotonous train interiors come alive, with refreshing details in every frame.
Om Puri’s Nair, who, has seen life and death better than most of his co-passengers, and maintains a diary of his reflections, sums it up very early in the show: “On a train, you destination is all important. In life, it is all about the journey.”
The railways were, and possibly still are, the best way to experience India. If you have the time and tolerance for your fellow citizens. For the rest, there is always YouTube.