THE FANTASTIC 27 DOWN BY AWTAR KRISHNA KAULby O.P. Srivastava May 28 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 30 secs
27 Down is a 1974 Hindi film written, directed and produced by Awtar Krishna Kaul starring Rakhee, MK Raina, Om Shivpuri and Rekha Sabnis, writes O.P. Srivastava
The film is based on a Hindi novel, Athara Sooraj Ke Paudhe, by Ramesh Bakshi.
Hariprasad Chaurasia and Bhubaneshwar Mishra composed the film’s music, while the production design was done by Bansi Chandragupta, known for designing most of Satyajit Ray’s films including Pather Panchali, Jalsagar, Charulata and Shatranj Ke Khiladi. It is a 118-minute film, edited by Ravi Patnaik. The film won the Best Feature Film in Hindi and Best Cinematography Awards at the 21st National Film Awards in 1974.
Awtar Krishna Kaul was born on 27 September 1939, in Srinagar. His family moved to Delhi in 1949, and he joined them after completing his studies. He joined the Ministry of External Affairs in 1958 and moved to the United States of America in 1960, when he was posted to the Indian Embassy there. While in New York, he quit his job and joined a film direction course. He returned to India in 1970 with his American wife, Anne, and settled in Mumbai, where he took up a job with Ivory Merchant Productions, having acquired knowledge of world cinema, Indian films and the French New Wave.
During this period, the FFC helped Mrinal Sen produce Bhuvan Shome, Basu Chatterjee with Sara Aakash and Mani Kaul with Uski Roti. Parallel cinema was already gaining an identity of its own. Kaul approached the FFC and, encouraged by its chairman BK Karanjia, he set out to make his first film in 1972. 27 Down had a budget of 8 lakh - Kaul contributed Rs 3 lakh and Rs 5 lakh were contributed by the FFC. Production of the film took nearly two years.
Kaul’s brother, Pradhuman, who was called in to become the financial controller of the film, remembers: ‘I had never seen a shoot before that. We shot more than 40 actual locations. The film could be made only because the people involved with the film were all young. The most prominent crewmember was Rakhee, who had already become a movie star’.
As a filmmaker, Kaul was a hard taskmaster, not even sparing his sibling. ‘He would shout at me if I made a mistake’, Pradhuman recalls. ‘A unit member was combing his hair while recording sound. Avtar yelled, “You should have a boom in your hand, not a comb!”
27 Down follows a railway ticket collector, Sanjay (MK Raina), who meets a young girl Shalini (Rakhee), a Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) employee, on a train.
The film is set on 27 Down, a Bombay–Varanasi express train. It uses the train as a metaphor for the journey of life. Sanjay (MK Raina) is on a pilgrimage to Varanasi and looks back on his life during the journey. The film opens with Sanjay sleeping in a train and reminiscing about his days as a ticket collector. As the train slows down, he muses. ‘Fir koi pul hai kya? Pul hi hoga’ (Is that another bridge? Must be!).
Sanjay is a subdued young man who is bullied by his father (Om Shivpuri) into giving up his dream of becoming an artist and is forced to join his father in the railways so he can have a stable life. He spends his days as a ticket collector until he meets Shalini (Rakhee) on a suburban train. After a few more meetings, they fall in love and Sanjay starts viewing life differently. When his father finds out about their relationship, he arranges Sanjay’s marriage to another girl.
This film remains ageless in its treatment of the relationship between two young people as they try to maintain a relationship amid the day-to-day tensions in their life in a metropolitan city.
Apurba Kishore Bir was the cinematographer on this film shot in the cinema verité style, also known as the documentary style of filmmaking. It was shot mainly on Mumbai trains, platforms and Victoria Terminal station. A large part of the footage (nearly 70%) was shot using a handheld camera with wide lenses. Bir chose to shoot the film in black and white, as he wanted to create contrasts and shadows alluding to the ups and downs of life. He carried an Arriflex camera (6–12 kg) on his shoulders throughout the shoot in public places.
Some of the scenes were shot live at Victoria Terminal station. Bir would cover the camera with a black cloth and take it off just before he rolled. By the time people realized what was happening, the shot was over. “After the film was completed, Awatar was not left with any money even to apply for the National Award”, recalls Narinder Singh who was the sound recordist for the film and helped him by giving the money to submit his film for the awards.
This is the only film Kaul produced; he died in a freak accident on the day his National Award was announced. On the night of 20th July 1974, Bir got a call from Delhi informing him that 27 Down had won two National Awards. The crew arranged a party; Kaul was to join them in the evening. Bir remembers, ‘We were expecting Awtar to come and celebrate. However around 1 am or so, I got a call from [the] police, asking me to identify a body’. They learned that Kaul had gone to the beach with a friend. The friend lost his balance and slipped off the parapet they were sitting on into the Arabian Sea. Kaul dived in to save his friend, but neither of them survived.
Narinder Singh clearly remembers that on that day he heard in the 9pm news that the film had won two National Awards and the next day early morning he read in the newspapers about the tragic death of the filmmaker. Unfortunately, Kaul died without knowing that his film had received two National Awards.
Although the film is nearly 50 years old, it hasn’t aged. The relationship of a young couple is handled with sensitivity that was rare for its time but remains relevant. Without resorting to melodrama, in very few words and depicting action mostly through visual cues, the film achieves the rare quality of timelessness.
27 Down will go down in the history of Hindi cinema as one of the most passionately made films. Ironically, the filmmaker’s journey was cut short before his train could even cross the first junction, but the journey of 27 Down continues in the minds of Hindi film buffs.