Indian Railways Documentaries

Passenger railways came about in India in 1853 and their vast and often colourful history has been recorded over the decades through various media. Raj era railway companies often used the print medium to attract passengers and to educate them in proper utilisation of their services. Such advertisements and posters can be traced back to the early 20th century. Cinema arrived in India in 1912 followed by radio broadcast service in 1927. In pre-independence India, commercial advertising was not common on radio or cinema. Moreover, the railway companies preferred to do their own advertising and public education either at stations or through their publications, primarily their timetables and magazines. These however had very limited reach as education was a luxury in those days.

Soon after independence from the British Empire in 1947, the railway companies came under a single policy and management system under the aegis of the Railway Board and the Railway Ministry. In a state-run system, public service and education took precedence over the bottom line. The railway board, however, had no expertise in creating public education material for the masses. The Films Division of India, which was set up in 1948 by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, came to the rescue of the railways in this matter.

The Films Division created the earliest public education documentary films for the railways. Before the arrival of television in India in 1965, these documentary films, ranging from five to fifteen minutes in duration, were created mainly for the consumption of cinema-goers, and these were shown either before the start of the main feature or during the intermission. Most of the time, however, these were used as an excuse for getting snacks or for visits to the bathrooms by the audience.

The subject of some of these documentaries that had railways as their main theme ranged from safety around the tracks, maintaining cleanliness at the stations, to travelling without excessive luggage and planning your travel, etc. Some of these railway documentaries also focused on the advent of newer technologies, trains, and systems. One such early documentary created in the mid-1960s focused on the progress of the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO), which was established in 1952 at Lucknow.

The 1970s were a turbulent period for India. Having just fought two debilitating wars with Pakistan and one with China in the past decade, there was widespread discontent among the public due to a lack of basic amenities, unemployment, and widespread poverty. There were mass strikes and representations throughout the country and often the railways and other state-owned enterprises became the target of the ire of the agitators. The government of India and Indian Railways once again sought the help of the Films Division to get the message of railways being public property across to the masses. The Films Division engaged lyricist and musician Prem Dhawan and used the voice of Mahendra Kapoor to create the first musical railway documentaries. This pair was popular for rendering many patriotic songs for the Indian cinema in the 1970s and did justice to the task at hand.

The late 1960s and 1970s, however, also ushered in a new era for Indian Railways during which several long distance fast train services were introduced, notable amongst which were the Rajdhani pair of trains connecting Calcutta and subsequently Bombay with New Delhi. In the early 1970s a documentary on the Bombay Rajdhani was broadcast by Bombay Doordarshan. The reporter Chitra Sundaram covered the journey from the vantage of the train, the stations en route and even the cab of the diesel locomotive!

Railways also played the main theme in some of the documentaries of a major public education project by Films Division called "अनेकता में एकता " / "Anekta mein Ekta" ("Unity in diversity"). These were animated films produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s and were broadcast on prime time television.

The Rail Transport Museum (now the National Rail Museum) opened at New Delhi in 1972 and the British Broadcasting Corporation created an excellent feature on it with the narrative provided by the museum's founder, Michael Satow.

Colour television arrived in India with the 1982 New Delhi Asian Games and a few years later Northern Railway commissioned several public relations improvement and education documentaries for the television audience. These documentaries focused on the facilities provided by the railways for public, how to best utilise them, and how to make railway travel comfortable. While the documentaries were mainly shot over the Northern Railway system, the opening and closing shots showed the then double diesel-headed Bombay Rajdhani, which is a Western Railway train, accelerating between two EMUs in the Bombay area. This shot along with the signature tune of these commercials was quite popular with railfans.

In 1986, Shyam Benegal created a television series called "यात्रा " / "Yatra" based on the Himsagar Express which was then the longest distance covering train of Indian Railways from Jammu Tawi to Kanyakumari. It was directed by Shyam Benegal and Om Puri provided narration and played the lead role.

Victor Banerjee won the coveted national film award for best documentary in 1990 for "एक अनंत यात्रा" / "Ek Anant Yatra" ("Where no journeys end"). It is a short film about a retired person who wishes to see the country through the railways.

More recently, a railway commercial called "Rail Gaadi" was created by Oglivy and Mather in 2010. It used a song sung by Ashok Kumar for the 1968 film "आशीर्वाद" / "Aashirwad" spun to the railway-unites-the-country theme. It was used by Indian Railways for the opening of 2010 Commonwealth Games at New Delhi.

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The Documentaries

RDSO Documentary

This sepia toned documentary in Hindi on the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) of Indian Railways was possibly created by the National Films Division Corporation for display at cinemas during main feature breaks. Although no details are provided, it was likely made around 1965, when Chittaranjan Loco Works had just begin AC electric locomotive production. It focuses on the newer technologies in use at the time and how Indian Railways had become self-reliant within a short time of gaining independence. The documentary has a morose outlook common with the documentaries of the time and the commentary often threatens to put you to sleep with its drone. Yet, for the hardened rail fan, there are many precious clips and the film is a gem considering that this is one of the oldest railway documentaries around.

The variety of travellers depicted in the film especially "Sarkari Afsar Saxena" ("Government Officer Saxena") are quite hilarious. And who knew before watching this masterpiece that "अनुसंधान अभिकल्प और मानक संगठन " ("Anusandhaan Abhikalp & Manak Sangathan") meant RDSO!

This video clip was converted from an 8-mm film spool found at an auction in North America.

यह है वह गाडी / Yeh hai woh gaadi

This musical documentary in Hindi is an attempt to get the message of railways being "public property" across. It was likely made in the early 1970s. There is a reference to man reaching the moon (1969) and a war (likly the 1971 one). It also depicts steam traction on the Kalka-Simla line, which finished in 1972. In the early 1970s India was reeling from a broken economy as result of having fought the Bangladesh liberation war and two previous wars with China and Pakistan in less than a decade. Inflation was soaring and unemployment was high. Workplace conditions were poor and there were accusations of high-handedness by the government in the public and private sector. Railways being the largest public sector entity were the common target during agitations and protests that almost always turned violent. This era was also a prelude to the great railway strike of 1974 during which 1.7 million workers struck work for 20 days bringing the government to its knees.

The song is rendered by Mahendra Kapoor and the music as well as lyrics are likely by Prem Dhawan.

किधर जा रहे हो / Kidhar ja rahe ho

This undated documentary in Hindi was likely made between 1975 and 1977 (Sunil Ghosh / Triveni Pictures). This period saw the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, declare a State of Emergency suspending all civil liberties. This era, often dubbed at the darkest hour of Indian democracy, saw widespread strikes, agitations and protests. The state owned machinery including the railways were often the target of the protestors' ire. The ruling government employed public figures, film stars, and singers to speak for them. This musical documentary was produced, scripted, and composed by Prem Dhawan and rendered by Mahendra (Mohinder) Kapoor, both already famous for creating many patriotic songs for Indian cinema. There is a brief clip showing Aryabhatta, the first Indian satellite launched in 1975, and Sagar Samrat, the offshore oil rig commissioned in 1973.

Also note that the protagonists leading the protest march against violence in this feature wear a beard or goatee (the "French beard" as it was known) which was considered chic and intellectual thing in that era.

A Race with Death

The Films Division of India created this animated documentary film. Along with this a series of other animated public education message films were made between the late 1970s and early 1980s for cinema as well as television. Most of these films focussed on unity. "A race with death" is about using caution when coming across unmanned railway crossings. Although this version is in English, these films were created in several languages and were also shown in rural areas through mobile projection vans of the Ministry of Broadcasting.

Base Kitchens

This Northern Railway documentary from the late 1980s in Hindi features the then novel base kitchen concept under which food was prepared in base kitchens at major stations (instead of being cooked in the pantry cars), wrapped in aluminum foil and other disposable packaging and served in the train by pantry car staff. While the concept of controlling the food quality in this manner was noble, it did not work for long as it was not lucrative any more for the pantry car contractors.

Customer Service Improvements

This documentary, in Hindi, focuses on the latest service improvements by Northern Railway in the late 1980s. Depicted in the documentary mostly is New Delhi station and the Delhi area except for the parting shot which was shot with the Bombay Rajdhani in the Bombay area.

Unauthorised Chain (Alarm) Pulling

That the seemingly innocent and jovial act of chain pulling on trains by some can have serious consequences for others, is the message of this public interest documentary film, in Hindi, created by Northern Railway in the late 1980s. Chain pulling is a punishable offence and there is a vivid depiction of railway police travelling incognito in trains (and smoking on the trains!) to crack down on the perpetrators.

Warning against Reservation Touts

After the implementation of computerised reservations in 1987, unscrupulous elements continued to find holes in the system, often with the help of conniving reservation officials. This Northern Railway documentary from the late 1980s, in Hindi, acts to serve as a warning against buying railway reservation tickets from touts and details its embarrassing consequences.

Unity in Diversity

This short documentary film in Hindi features how Indian Railways serve as a mechanism of national integration.

Warning against Unsafe (Footboard and Rooftop) Travel

That travelling on the rooftop and footboard of trains can be deadly, is the focus of this short public education film in Hindi made by Northern Railway in late 1980s.

Carrying Excessive Baggage Onboard Trains

This public education message, in Hindi, advises passengers against carrying excessive baggage on trains to make their journeys comfortable and pleasant. It also warns of the penalties for carrying excessive baggage. Heavy baggage should be booked in luggage vans.

Maintaining Cleanliness on Railway Property / Unauthorized Travel in Reserved Coaches

This clip has two documentaries, both in Hindi.

Maintaining cleanliness on railway property The first documentary has a general message about not being a litter-bug and maintaining cleanliness of one's surroundings when travelling by train. This is a Northern Railway documentary from the late 1980s. It ends at 1m 11s into the clip.

Unauthorised Travel in Reserved Coaches This is about short distance travellers boarding reserved coaches and demanding seats from reserved passengers. It cleverly puts the message across by depicting that what you do to others can happen to you some day! The message of this Northern Railway documentary from the late 1980s is that suburban passengers should use trains and coaches designated for suburban travel.

Computerised Reservation System

This documentary in Hindi introduces the computerised railway reservation system introduced by Indian Railway in 1987 in New Delhi and Calcutta. It focuses on the benefits of computerisation that eliminates long queues for reservation, the ease of information availability, and the elimination of reservation touts.

Where no journeys end (एक अनंत यात्रा / Ek Anant Yatra)

This is a short feature film in English narrated, filmed, and directed by Victor Banerjee. Victor Banerjee narrates this story from the viewpoint of a railway official who is about to retire and plans to spend the rest of his days travelling and exploring India. And what better way than Indian Railways to see the country united by the railways. This feature won the national award for the best documentary in 1990. Though mainly a travelogue, there are some excellent shots of trains as well which makes this a must watch film for every rail fan.

Article by Harsh Vardhan, Copyright © 2013. Documentary videos are subject to copyright by their producers and/or Indian Railways.
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