Documentary Filmmaker Disha Rindani On The Stories And Lives Behind The Voices Of Local Trains
- IWB Post
- June 10, 2019
Disha Rindani started working on her documentary film Meet The Voice in 2015. The eight-minute film, divided into three episodes, interprets the life of railway announcers who work tirelessly behind the scenes.
At the annually held MAMI film festival in Mumbai a couple of years ago, a section called Mumbai Dimensions organized a competition for filmmakers, for which Disha made a short film based on Mumbai that captures its spirit. She was subsequently awarded for her work and the experience was so wonderful that she was inspired to make more documentary films.
In 2015, Disha saw a documentary film named The Voice of New York City Subway, that made her curious about Mumbai railway announcers. The subject led her to make a short documentary film named Meet The Voice, sharing the stories of voices behind the railway announcements.
Excerpts from the interview:
While researching for the documentary, what amazed you the most when you interacted with the railway announcers?
There were three stories that I covered which were unique in their own way. I initially thought of telling a story about a woman announcer, but during the process, I also discovered Ganesh who was a visually-impaired railway announcer. One thing led to another and I felt this subject had a scope to turn out in a series which resulted in three episodes of the documentary.
Every announcer I spoke to has dedicated more than 10-15 years of their life and it’s upsetting that people don’t think about the person behind the voice because railway announcers are invisible to the public. The way the announcers kindly and politely respond to the people approaching them despite it being a thankless and strenuous job amazed me the most. They always have a smiling face and continue doing their job without any expectation.
What are some of the details about their lives which are unknown to people?
Through the documentary, I wanted people to identify with the announcers as someone from our own community. In Sarla’s case, her husband was very supportive of her job and she was an empowered woman in a masculine industry. Even her kids recognised her for the work she did for the railways. I would like people to know how supportive their families were, which led to their success.
With Ganesh, I was intrigued by the way he managed his life. The irony of his situation was that, being visually impaired, he needed support from people to direct him to places during his commute, whereas as an announcer he helped people to find their way at the railway station. It’s such an unexpected and magical way of functioning. It is such a great example of how an industry can empower a visually-impaired person. The fact that railways are associated as a place being prone to accidents, his story is a bright spot that should be showcased to see the other dimension.
What were the reactions of people watching a woman announcer at the station?
Most of the stations at that time did not have cabins that were easily accessible to the passengers and the only station that had a cabin that was visible to travelers was in Dombivli, in the suburbs of Mumbai. So Sarla shared that people specially visited Dombivli to see female announcers do their job efficiently. They would bring their children to see how the work of woman announcers was an aspirational position to be in where a young woman directed people behind glass cabins. She proudly shared with me that it was the 15 minutes of fame that she experienced and enjoyed the most in her life where people wanted to know who she was. Also, her husband felt proud when her voice was recognised by his friends.
Were there any challenges that Sarla faced as a woman announcer?
Earlier the information was not recorded and there were some human errors made in noting down some pieces of information due to language barriers which led to wrong announcements. So, the challenges were in terms of delivering the right information which could lead to a delay in the train schedules.
Also, the railway industry back in the ’80s was predominantly a male-dominated field. But a gentleman named JSB Brownson recognised the need for having women announcers since they have a gentle and sweet voice which could get the message across in a better way during the chaos. So, people treated them with a lot of respect.
Interestingly, Sarla shared that even while she was doing this work that gave her a certain kind of exposure, her father and his friends were overprotective of her. If they would see her outside late at night, her father would be informed and this nature of these men stifled her. The cultural limitations of where we come from have a great impact on the individual and, in her case, her voice traveled everywhere but she couldn’t move around freely because of the traditional setup that she was brought up in.
What were the emotional uncertainties that Vishnu went through during 26/11?
Vishnu is someone who loves to chat but in terms of discussing the 26/11 incident, it took him time to come out with the emotional uncertainty that he went through because it has been 10 years and he also doesn’t want such an incident to be discussed or happen again. So, the only thing he managed to talk about was about how desperate he was to speak to his family because of the fear of losing his life.
What are the unseen moments that you wish you could include in the documentary?
In Vishnu’s story, his wife shared that he has always been a very observant man, so even if he was talking to her and in the background he would see smoke curling in the air, he would point out that a fire was caught. He was very vigilant, which helped him save a lot of lives during the Mumbai attacks and now he enjoys this nature as a security guard in his new job.
In Ganesh’s story, I would have loved to show how talented he is apart from the job that he does. He is very good at emulating railway sounds with his hands. By taping on a wooden surface he can play the sound of a train approaching. I found that really intriguing and at that time we wanted to add the sound in the documentary, but we couldn’t because we did not have a good sound recorder at that moment. Also, I would like to add in the documentary how he helped in searching for missing people.
Being a passenger in a train, what would you like to hear from the announcers?
I personally don’t like the advertisements on the trains these days. There are many untapped poets, writers, and singers amongst our railway announcers like Ganesh, and it would be great if an announcer like him could sing a bhajan in the morning. There should be spontaneous moments from the announcers on the mic so as to let people know that there are real human beings behind the voice. I would also like the warnings announced at the railway tracks to have a personal touch to them.
Would you like to work on a similar documentary in other cities as well?
I would love to do a series on different cities because every city has its own challenges and characters. I wonder how it must be like in Delhi, because of it being the capital of India and the city is also known for a certain temperament. Different cities have different attitudes, I would love to meet people from other cities and understand the Indian railways from other perspectives.
How can a documentary humanise the voices behind the scenes?
Documentaries give a depth to the story when you personally interact with people. It’s important to know about the various aspects of a person’s life than just a specific part. The in-depth information that documentaries provide helps people relate to the protagonist at a basic human level. As a documentary filmmaker, I want the audience to be able to identify with the person whose story they are watching.
First published on Dec 8, 2018.