tv series

The DD Files: Shyam Benegal’s ‘Yatra’ packed all of India in a train

The 1985 series held up a mirror to the nation’s diversity and showcased some of the finest acting talent of the day.

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.

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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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.