The title of this column is taken from the wonderful Jiri Menzel film, which means many things to many people. Closely Watched Trains, made in 1966, is a coming-of-age story, a Czechs-are-like-this-only comedy, an anti-Nazi protest, and a movie for people who love trains, stations, steam engines, signalling equipment and anything to do with the railways in general. Numerous films are described as beguiling but few of them age well enough to continue to deserve the appellation. Closely Watched Trains certainly makes the cut.
It’s the story of Milos, who becomes an apprentice at the same tiny railway station where his father has worked for decades as an engine driver (Milos senior sets his watch to the tooting of the train). Milos is training to be a signal man, but most of all, he wants to be a man. He wants to lose his virginity, and fast. Menzel assembles a series of beautifully observed and perfectly calibrated comic sketches involving Milos and other employees at the station. In one of the most famous scenes in world cinema, the station’s train dispatcher stamps his love all over the bare bottom of the enthusiastic telegraph operator (it was referenced by Shyamal Karmakar in his documentary I Am the Very Beautiful).
But the movie isn’t wanting for memorable characters and moments. There is Milos’s suicide attempt; the local government official officer who’s more Nazi than the Nazis; the nurses who invite exhausted soldiers over to shed their fatigues, a driver who decorates the sides of his engine with his rudimentary artworks; a lecherous photographer who clicks women against an airplane model. The DVD issued by the movie label Criterion is worth its price, especially to appreciate better the intimate black-and-white cinematography from a time when movies were shot on 35mm.
Avtar Krishna Kaul’s only movie 27 Down (the filmmaker died in a drowning accident soon after completing the film) is also about a son who follows in his railway employee father’s footsteps, but it’s at the other end of the emotional spectrum. 27 Down, made in 1973 and finally available on the National Film Development Corporation’s Cinemas of India DVD label after years of being out of circulation, maps a journey into near oblivion. Sanjay’s life is a series of disappointments, whether it’s to do with his job or his stop-start romance with independent-minded Mumbai resident Shalini (Rakhee) or his reluctant wedding to a woman chosen by his father.
Shooting in the cinema verite style that was de rigueur at the time, cinematographer AK Bir creates sharp and stark images of Mumbai’s living spaces, streets and railway stations. If you think that the superdense crushload of Mumbai’s suburban trains is a recent phenomenon, consider the scene in which a train enters an empty platform and crams the space with hundreds of commuters within seconds.
Several Indians – at least this Indian – swapped train journeys for plane rides as soon as it became more affordable and more efficient to fly. The romance of a train journey – or its false promise, as Kaul shows in 27 Down – has been celebrated in different ways in the movies. Amol Palekar’s creepy Catholic gent woos the object of his desire, Tina Munim (her décolletage marking her as a Sandra from Bandra stereotype) in a local train in Basu Chatterjee’s Baaton Baaton Mein. The Chennai train network is a staging ground for the romance between Alaipayuthey’s young lovers in the Mani Ratnam romance. Sriram Raghavan orchestrates a taut, dialogue-free and highly effective killing on board a Bangalore-bound train in Johnny Gaddaar .
One of the best-known television series on Doordarshan mapped an epic train journey. Shyam Benegal’s Yatra, which aired in 1986, was commissioned by the Indian Railways to promote “national integration” and set on board the Himsagar Express, which travels from Kanyakumari to Jammu Tawi. The affectionate reactions to the episodes posted on YouTube point to a yearning for the glory days of Doordarshan as well for a time when train journeys were cheaper, less cumbersome and far more pleasurable than they seem at present.
This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.