Dir.: Awtar Krishna Kaul
27 Down is as beautiful, truthful and evocative as the trains of the Indian railways which serve as its almost constant backdrop. And it induces the same yearning, for that forgotten taste of tea in a earthen cup, a little stale, a little metallic, a little too sweet and just a little bit dusty. But the reasons why 27 Down, a debut film by Awtar Krishna Kaul, a young man of 28 , made 44 years ago has survived as a classic of Indian cinema, lie beyond the overwhelming nostalgia of trains.
Sanjay (M. K. Raina) was born on a train. For his birthplace, he mentions two places, much to the exasperation of the interviewer who is about to give him a job in the railways after Sanjays father has pulled a few strings. Sanjay is slightly adamant about it, the train was at an unknowable point in the vast labyrinth of railway tracks that span the country. This is his very minor rebellion against his father, who was a train driver and now wants his son to have a secure but dull job in the railways. He has very practical reasons for pushing his son in that direction, including perks like free coal that railway employees get to fire their mud ovens with at home.
The young director about whom very little information is available online, must be reflecting on his career path in some way through this film, being an art film director in the late 60s must have been a far more radical career choice than it is today. Even now if one speaks to the teachers in two of India’s leading state run film schools you hear of how a large section of students have revolted at home and sought a kind of refuge at the film school in the promise of a career as an artist.
In an early scene in the film we see him as a child admiring a nude sculpture of Aphrodite and then we see him in a reputed art school in Bombay, a young man, away from his family. His father writes letters to him, offering him practical advice which we see Sanjay not heed, his mother has passed away and his father makes a big deal of acting protective. Somehow the director never foregrounds the artist in Sanjay, he is perhaps wary of making the film autobiographical ( Google does not know much about Avatar Kaul yet, but I shall find out one day and post an addendum to this review). When his father asks him to join the railways, Sanjay offers only half hearted resistance. He refers to his art education as “ I want to complete my studies” to which his father says “ You can do that along with your job too!”. Sanjay is afraid to speak more clearly about his education, varnishing it as “studies”. It is this strange tone of being unsure that defines the overall tone of the film for me.
This attitude of meek capitulation is most telling in his marriage to a village girl of his fathers choice. Sanjay is having a serious affair with a girl, Shalini (a de-glamourised Rakhee), who he has met on a train. Orphaned early, Shalini now works in Bombay as a clerk to support her grandfather and siblings who live in another city. Now think of Satyajit Rays Mahanagar made in 1962 which portrays a housewife working to support her family and the shame that her husband experiences. Shalini is doing the same but Avatar Krishna Kaul is gently putting our middle class morality in the dock, in a style that is equidistant from Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwick Ghakat and the formalist Mani Kaul.
27 Down is a singular voice in Indian cinema, not fully formed, hesitant to make its point but marshalling the power of the cinematic image to its advantage with a lot of passion, restraint and wonder. Along with his cameraman AK Bir, who was all of 22 years old and heavily influenced by Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, they hold the hidden camera on crowded railway platforms and on moving trains and capture high contrast black and white images that evoke the romance of railways and the drudgery of travelling in a third class compartment, all at once.
The job that Sanjay lands is as a TTE or a Travelling Ticket Examiner. We see him spend days on the train, going about his job in a stupor of heat and dullness. I could not help but think of a very good friend of mine who worked as a TTE before he became my classmate at a prestigious business school in India. Could Sanjay have made made a similar choice?
In one remarkable shot, undoubtedly a classic of Indian cinema, and right up there with Durga and Apu discovering the train in Pather Panchali, a camera placed very high up in Bombays dazzlingly grand and grimy Victoria Terminus, a local train pulls up and empties out a vast load of humanity on a almost deserted platform. The disembarking passengers who soon turn into a teeming sea of white clothes and black heads are a potent metaphor for the subversion of the individuality of sensitive young men like Sanjay. The legendary film critic Pauline Kael famously called Rays sequence “locating the mythic in the ordinary”, I believe Avatar Kaul neatly turns that paradigm on its head – in this shot we get the ordinary in the mythic.
If you notice carefully you will see a portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru hanging on the wall in Sanjay’s fathers house, sandwiched between numerous Gods. In fact just Nehru’s trademark white Gandhi Cap is visible and I could not help speculating that it was an oblique comment on the demise of a Nehruvian New Deal that had gone wrong for the young people of that time.
There are also hints of Jiri Manzels 1968 masterpiece Closely Watched Trains, and the moment I finished watching 27 Down, I told myself – “This is our Closely Watched Trains”. In a way 27 Down too is a film about the confusion of youth in a socio economic climate in limbo, and the loss of innocence when confronted with the forces of world. We see Sanjay wilt under pressure from his father, lying in a stupor on sleeper trains. When he senses that the train is passing over a bridge we hear him philosophise incoherently. The numerous bridges connect nothingness with nothingness and the train for him is running in a maddening never-ending loop. 27 Down refers to the train route – “Bombay to Varanasi”, the holiest city for Hindus. Even though Sanjay takes that train he returns from Varanasi in spiritual despair .
This is a remarkably open film, a moving feast of images and moods, which will draw in viewers in its embrace. This was the only film that Awtar Krishna Kaul made and it adds up to much more than what many achieved in a lifetime.
# Avatar Krishna Kaul died in an accident the same night it was announced that his first film had won top honours at the national awards.