Get Even More Visitors To Your Blog, Upgrade To A Business Listing >>

Bombay Railway

I’ve been living here over a year now, but sometimes it takes another person’s view to make you see properly what’s been in front of your own eyes all this time.

By a weirdly long route, a DVD recording of Gerry Troyna’s recent BBC TV documentary about the railways in Bombay, called, er, “Bombay Railway” fell into my hands, and I just had to watch it – mostly cos I get a kick of watching something related to a city I know and then saying – “yes, I’ve been there!”
(I don’t know why I like doing this. This habit sounds a bit childish as I write it down… But if you live in Mumbai as I do, it happens a lot when you watch Bollywood. I spent most of the movie “Lage Raho Munnabhai” just identifying the backgrounds. Very irritating for the person watching it with me as it turned out later).

Information, Education, Entertainment

Anyway, the documentary, which is in two halves, Part One being called “Pressure” and Part Two being called "Dreams", is really a revelation, even for a resident like me. I should have known it would be because the film’s maker, Gerry Troyna, has been coming to the city on and off for twenty years, so he knows much about what the city is.

Actually, It’s a kind of old fashioned documentary in that it simply follows the lives of a dozen or so ordinary people whose livelihood is somehow entwined with the railways – from the train driver near retirement to a hawker who works the women’s carriages.
It’s also “old-fashioned” in that there is no hidden agenda or thesis to push, there is no interrogating of the participants, and, on the positive side, there is also a desire to capture just how happy ordinary people can be as well as how crushed they can get.
And all the time, there is a gentle drip-feed of facts and figures about the enormous industry that is the railways of Bombay (Did you know: that six million passengers daily use the city’s system, over just 300km of track? Stunning).
The documentary ends up giving you that famous combination of Information, Education and Entertainment. Which is just what I appreciate.

Railway essential

For Mumbaikers, the railway system is just plain essential. The shape of the city is like a long water-drop, and this makes the roads hugely congested. To drive from one end of the city to the other (which is about 30 kilometers) will easily take two hours. On a train it takes twenty minutes.
And in a city where fifty per cent of the inhabitants are so poor they live in slum conditions, it has the added advantage of being incredibly cheap.

The system is also just part of the landscape. Unlike London, where the railways are often hidden behind embankments or high concrete fences, these rail lines often run quite visibly alongside the main highways in the city. You can often be walking along, looking at the pavement (if there is one!) and look up, and there’s a train running parallel to you. Because the carriages are basically glorified cattle-transporters, without doors as such, many of the passengers will also be leaning out into the slipstream enjoying the cooling breeze. It looks a crazy thing to do, and, actually, there are lots of accidents.

(Somehow people don’t seem to get too worked up about the rate of accidents, strangely. Over three thousand people are knocked over and killed or fall off trains every year in Bombay, a statistic that would close down the national network in Britain, but there seems to be a belief here that it’s usually the victims’ own fault anyway. And that could be true. Because railway land is so open, and because Mumbaikers love a bit of risk, you’ll see people wandering all over the lines at all times of day, with some families even bedding down in small shelters by the lines. It’s a Health & Safety Inspector’s nightmare!)

In fact, the driver, whose story we follow in the film, admits, almost in passing and without self-pity, that he has driven his train into nearly seventy people during his career (many accidents are at night, in poor light). It is also his gruesome and statutory job to ensure that the body is removed form the line before the train can continue. But he shrugs his shoulders, albeit a little quietly, at the fact.
This rather blasé attitude can work to the city’ s advantage though, because it means it would take something huge to close down the network. Even the terrible floods of 26/7/2005, in which 500 people died, only saw the schedules suspended for … twenty-four hours!

If you do get a chance, this film has got to be worth seeing - whether you’re interested in railways, urban infrastructure, or simply how Mumbai keeps going.
The end of the documentary is brilliantly conceived as a Bollywood–style fantasy song and dance sequence on a fictional Bombay station, as dreamed up by the railway officer who is another of the figures in the film. Somehow the whole concept just gets the spirit of the Mumbai ‘thing’, whatever that is, and gets it just right.

Finally, the other great thing about this film is that it’s about the range of unnoticed people, whose efforts keep the railways so vital. There’s such a temptation in Bombay to concentrate on the pretty people, or the billionaires, or the politicians, but Gerry Troyna has just quietly selected the right people in his profile.
There’s the magistrate who holds his court for railway offenders on a station platform; there’s the guy who just wants to create a successful business selling food on the trains; there’s the street-kid who sleeps by the tracks – and more.
It’s his genius I think to have spotted these people, to have helped them relax enough to be filmed acting so naturally, and then woven them into being integral features of the bigger story – that of the railway system itself.

I know your chances of getting to see it are slim now (though it might turn up on Discovery – who knows), but honestly I should try to get to see it.
If anyone hears of where and when it’s playing in Mumbai, just let me know, or stick what you know in Comments.


To leave a comment, just click on the word “comments” that is a few lines below here or, if not there, click “Post A Comment” at the bottom of the page. Commenting on this site is open; so you do not need to register, and you can even leave an anonymous comment if you wish.

Links: BBC's webpage about 'Bombay Railway', and The film's Bollywood sequence "Chali Chali" -on YouTube

This post first appeared on An Englishman In Mumbai, please read the originial post: here

Share the post

Bombay Railway


Subscribe to An Englishman In Mumbai

Get updates delivered right to your inbox!

Thank you for your subscription