Why is it that Indian railways loom so large in popular culture? From the long-awaited reunion at the end of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) to the Google Earth scene in Lion (2016), Indian trains seem less like barrels of steel that dart from A to B and more like characters unto themselves.
In Great Indian Railway Journeys, a travel documentary series hosted by Michael Portillo, the railway lines that chug along the valleys, mountains and metropolises of the world’s largest democracy take centre stage; and our host sees a bit of India while he’s at it.
It’s safe to say that Portillo, a British MP-turned-broadcaster, is a fan of train travel. His jaunt to India is the latest in line of railway docos that have taken him to Europe, the USA and of course, the UK (you can stream Great British Railway Journeys here).
Portillo always sets sail with his trusty Bradshaw’s Guide, a century-old series of Victorian guidebooks. In India, Portillo takes his cues from Bradshaw's 1913 Handbook of Indian, Foreign and Colonial Travel; and as you’d imagine, a few things have changed.
But while Great Indian Railway Journeys is worth watching for Michael Portillo’s wardrobe alone (his colourful trouser collection truly is a sight to behold), it’s his conversations with the locals that makes this series worthwhile.
Here are a few of my favourite moments...
Exploring the thriving start-up scene in Bengaluru
In Episode 2, Michael checks out the tech scene in Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore). A young passenger on the train informs him that the number of start-ups have risen so quickly in the last decade that the city now buzzes with the energy of a global tech hub.
Michael also talks to Sidu Ponnappa, Head of Engineering at GO-JEK, a ride-hailing start-up that has grown 900-fold within only 18 months. Ponnappa casually mentions that this puts the company among some of the fastest-growing in history.
This history professor gets brutally honest about The Partition
When Michael boards a train that takes him from India to Pakistan, he ends up crossing one of the most politically-loaded borders in the world. During the journey he has a chat with Sucheta Mahajan, a Professor of Modern History (they just so happened to be on the same train—what are the chances?). She says that the very train route that they’re taking was the site of devastating bloodshed during the Partition of India in 1947.
Professor Mahajan doesn’t mince words when she describes Lord Mountbatten’s plan to split the subcontinent into India and Pakistan as “nothing short of lunacy” (Sidebar: This wasn’t even that long ago. Prince Phillip is Lord Mountbatten’s nephew).
She describes the response of the British government to the violence which ensued as of “complete indifference” and “secret satisfaction”. It’s an interview that’s not to be missed.
Visiting Whitefield, a former Anglo-Indian colony
A Bengaluru commuter train takes Michael to Whitefield, home to a large community of Anglo-Indians (which in this context refers to people that have both Indian and British heritage). Whitefield was set up in 1882 and at the time looked a lot like an English village.
Michael tracks down Whitefield locals Merlyn D’Souza and her son Paul who live in the only remaining English-style bungalows in the area. Both Merlyn and Paul talk fondly about what Whitefield was like when they first arrived a few decades ago—a close-knit community boasting with traditional English architecture, home-delivered groceries and even a flower man.
Later in the episode, Michael is lucky enough to sample some Anglo-Indian food, which I embarrassingly hadn’t heard of as an official cuisine until I watched this episode. It looked insanely good, of course.
This kid says she prefers a 40-hour train ride to catching a flight
On a trip between Kerala and Delhi, Michael strikes up a conversation with a young girl who tells him that she actually prefers the train ride to flying. Even Michael, who has made a bunch of travel documentaries premised on the beauty and grandeur of train travel, is shocked.
“Even though it takes so long? Aren’t you tired?” he asks.
“It’s not a problem”, she says.
Watch Great Indian Railway Journeys Tuesdays at 7:30pm on SBS. Missed the previous episodes? Catch up at SBS On Demand: