27 Down, the only film directed by Awtar Krishna Kaul, before his premature death is one of the great moments in the foundational years of Parallel Cinema. This was the first wave of Parallel Cinema before the FFC criteria was redefined in the mid 1970s because of protestations concerning the types of films being funded were either too esoteric or avant-garde for the tastes of Indian film audiences. 27 Down is about Sanjay (M. K. Raina), a young aspirational man, who is pressured into becoming a train conductor by his lonely and obstinate father (Om Shivpuri). The film’s narrative is structured around a series of flashbacks narrated by Sanjay as he journeys on 27 Down, the Bombay-Varanasi Express. With a naturalistic production design by Bansi Chandragupta, a regular collaborator with Satyajit Ray, and luminous black and white cinematography by Apurba Kishore Bir for which he won a National Award, 27 Down is very much a study of loneliness, regret and indeterminacy. An existential dimension is explicated through Sanjay’s introspective voice over, used to coincide with the iconographic use of the train, here very much a symbol of Sanjay’s transient state. More communicative than the fetishisation of the railway and train is the benign romance between Sanjay and Shalini (Rakhee), depicted as an almost organic development that takes each of them by real surprise.
Although the central story about a train conductor and a young typist becomes a study of traditional and modern values, the foregrounding of the train as a key thematic shapes the tactile aesthetic sensibilities. The central character of Sanjay, a disenchanted train conductor, is someone who is born on a train, works and sleeps on a train, and falls in love on a train. Trains define Sanjay’s existence and such a prominent thematic relates to the way trains are such an integral iconographic presence in so many Indian films. In this context, the train becomes a source of refuge for Sanjay. The endless journey that a train can make and the carriages of anonymous passengers also maps an urban trajectory of loneliness for Sanjay, gradually isolating him in the train as a prisoner. Much of the semi documentary footage in the train and on the platform gives the film a realist tone that later complements the cynical decisions made by Sanjay’s father.
Conclusively, Sanjay does not know what he wants from life; he keeps asking the same questions and it is only at the end does he come to accept that his life is a cyclical diatribe of suffering from which he cannot escape. Sanjay gives up Shalini for a crippling ordinariness but it is a decision augmented by the woes of tradition and a painful generational gap that he is not courageous enough to smash.
27 DOWN will be screening on Zee Classic Sat 24 Sept at 10pm