One of the best metaphors for Mumbai is its local train network, which connects the city centre with far-flung suburbs. In the rattling train coaches that transport lakhs of commuters every day, the contradictory elements of the much-vaunted “Spirit of Mumbai” – resilience tinged with resignation – vividly come alive.

The coaches reserved for women on the trains provide a further sub-stratum of insight. As Rebana Liz John persuasively shows in her documentary Ladies Only, the women’s only section contains a female perspective on the Spirit of Mumbai as well as a microcosm of womanhood itself.

Ladies Only is showing at the Berlin Film Festival after being premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in 2021. The 78-minute documentary has been filmed in lustrous black-and-white almost entirely inside the women’s compartments. The film meshes observational detail and 13 interviews culled from 75 hours of footage with a sociological experiment aimed at asking questions about patriarchy and emancipation.

John converses with a spectrum of travellers, from unhappily married women to proud singletons and power lifters to lovers of punk. Our men eat, drink and go to sleep and don’t help out with the housework, observes a woman who has an alcoholic husband and four children.

Marriage is “a very depressing thing to do”, another says.

Ladies Only (2021). Courtesy Camera Mischief Films.

John layers her project by handing out printouts of the rousing poems Azaadi and Ladkiyan by feminist Kamla Bhasin. Bhasin’s clarion call for freedom “from endless violence, from helpless silence, for walking freely, for talking freely, for dancing madly, for singing loudly” inspires agreement, empathy and clarity.

Don’t you feel angry, the 35-year-old filmmaker frequently asks her subjects. Their responses bridge the gap between an academic understanding of feminism and its lived experience.

The device of the poems came to John as she started exploring the ways in which she could forge connections with her subjects that went beyond the question-and-answer format. “There was something beautiful and complex about Kamla Bhasin’s poems,” John told “I wrote to Kamla Bhasin and she was happy to let me use her poems.”

Ladies Only (2021). Courtesy Camera Mischief Films.

A graduate in film and media art from the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne in Germany, John channelled her own experiences as a Mumbai resident for Ladies Only.

John lived in the Powai suburb in the city’s north-eastern stretch. She studied at Jai Hind College in Churchgate, which is in the south of Mumbai. “I remember the first time I tried to take the train by myself when I was 14 or 15 – it was a rite of passage,” she said.

“The ladies compartment makes you feel safe and gives you this in-between, suspended space,” John added. “It has helped a lot of women to feel independent. Having the ladies’ compartment has allowed women to imagine a working life for themselves.”

There are even whole trains reserved for women, quaintly called the “Ladies Special”. Filmmaker Nidhi Tuli made a film about these trains, also called Ladies Special, in 2003. Elsewhere, the women’s compartments have inspired photo essays and poetry.

In 5.46, Andheri Local, Arundhathi Subramaniam writes:

“In the women’s compartment
of a Bombay local
we search
for no personal epiphanies.
Like metal licked by relentless acetylene
we are welded –
dreams, disasters,
germs, destinies,
flesh and organza,
odours and ovaries.
A thousand-limbed
million-tongued, multi-spoused
Kali on wheels.”

In Ladies Only too, the chatter is offset by poetic montages. A set of shots focus on hands, for instance. Sellers of trinkets and chikoos squeeze between the bodies. The city beyond the train compartment is a blur of constantly shifting light and forms.

The effect is enhanced by the use of black and white. “Many people associate India with colour, and I didn’t want that,” John said. “The use of black and white was an aesthetic choice, to try and to distil the essence of the space. The visual stimuli is so high that black and white helps you focus. I did, however, have moments when I missed colour.”

The documentary was shot in 2019 entirely in the second-class women’s coaches. John, cinematographer Milann Tress John, and sound recordists Navya Sah and Ankita Purkayastha travelled up and down the rail lines – mainly the one that runs between Thane and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus – and watched and waited.

“We didn’t have an agenda – it was a matter of the moment, of finding the right people to make connections,” John said. Some women refused to speak to her. On other occasions, John would overhear interesting conversations and request to have them on camera. These included a young powerlifter, who spoke of defying convention and dealing with a meddling brother.

Ladies Only (2021).

Milann Tress John used prime lenses (with a fixed focal length, as opposed to zoom lens) and a gimbal (to steady the shots) to frame the subjects. Despite being filmed in often crowded conditions and in constantly moving trains, Ladies Only provides unwaveringly steady and frontal portraits of courage and charisma.

“This was a method to create more transparency – the people should be able to see you when are you are filming,” Rebana Liz John explained. “It’s also about consent and the ethics of filming someone. People in India are very open to being filmed, but you do need to make sure it’s okay. They need to see you at least [as opposed to being shot from afar with a zoom lens]. The neutral observer is a myth. The camera and your presence have to affect the subjects, and the subjects have to be seen affected by the camera.”

Rebana Liz John. Photo by Ronny Heine/Film School Fest Munich 2019.