During his world tour in the 1890s, Mark Twain had famously noted that the women porters of Darjeeling could carry a piano to the top of a hill. Surely he had someone like Sita Chhetri, a 45-year-old Nepali widow, in mind. Chhetri lives in a one-room wooden shack and carries travellers’ suitcases to raise her five sons. She prays to the gods every morning to bless her station.
Portraits of fascinating people like her are at the heart of the 1-hour documentary, The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The documentary is the opening film in the tri-series on the Indian Hill Railways that was recently awarded UK’s prized television honour, the Royal Television Society Award (Best Factual Series). After its initial screening on BBC’s Channel 4 in February, it has been screened more than seven times on national television. Its director, Tarun Bhartiya, is a Shillong-based film-maker who went scouting for possible stories for several months before he began filming in June 2009.
There are poignant moments in the film, such as when the illiterate Chhetri shares her dream of sending her 18-year-old son to Darjeeling’s best college, St Joseph’s College. She can’t afford the fees, but she appeals to the principal, who agrees to waive it.
Chhetri knew the value of having a BBC crew along for such a meeting. There are other characters that are compelling: The pointsman who is a frustrated harmonica player and who only lives to see his musically inclined son make a career in pop music; the ticket collector who wants to be a Buddhist priest. These tales rumble along with the ancient steam engines, built in factories in Glasgow almost 150 years ago. The little blue engine of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway may have only three carriages but it does a vertigo-inducing 7,000ft climb in 52 miles.
The series is produced by British film-maker Gerry Troyna, who has been making films and documentaries for around 30 years for the BBC, Channel 4 and broadcasters around the world. This series is one in a long line of films that are a testimony to Troyna’s obsession with the subject. His first encounter with the railways was in 1980 when, after directing the pilot film with Sir Ludovic Kennedy for the BBC series Great Railway Journeys of the World, he was given his choice of country. He chose India. Over the years he has made several films on the railways in India, including one on the Deccan railway (British Academy of Film and Television Arts, or Bafta, nomination, 1981) and another on Mumbai’s suburban railway (Royal Television Society Award, 2008).
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Diptendu Dutta/AFP
The other two films in the series are the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (directed by Hugo Smith) and the Kalka-Shimla Railway (directed by Nick Mattingly); they too delve into the lives of those working with the hill railways—porters, pointsmen, ticket collectors, drivers—who live along the narrow track that weaves across towns.
The Indian Railways is also a vast reservoir of data regarding track miles, rolling stock and employment levels. Troyna is interested in these details but he eschews statistics for a more personal approach. “I am concerned with the micro, not the macro, level of things; with the purely human scale of the railways in India,” he says in an email exchange. Troyna is also involved with a photography exhibition, Meri Rail, which was first exhibited in India (National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai) in 2008 and is currently touring the UK.
Victorian imperial ambition built the railways. But eventually India grew over the railways like a creeper vine until they took on a local hue. The railways were the harbingers of democracy, a journey on which there was a seat for everyone. Things have changed but the railways, especially in the isolated hill railway avatars, continue to be a constant.
Arguably, the railways were the greatest bequest to India by the British. “It was a symbol of everything that was good about the British. An engineering marvel, strong, reliable, honest, born of hard work and craftsmanship,” says Troyna. He adds nostalgically, “We’ve always been proud of our railways.” His words chime with those of the Times reviewer, who gave the documentary series a five-star rating, saying: “We Brits are soft on the railways”.
DVDs of the series are available on Troyna’s website www.gerrytroyna.com