27 Down : Map of the Human Heart

Awtar Kaul’s 1973 film 27 Down as watched seems existentially aimless as we watch the main character,Shanjay, spend the bulk of his time on trains whether working on them or not reflecting on a social life he is very isolated from. However after the movie has concluded the symbolism of the train route he travels on, 27 Down (the Benaras express), becomes apparent as it analogous to Shanjay’s spiritual travels. The train carries him from traditional family spheres of responsibility to his more casual workplace and then to his "Mecca", Benaras, where he is totally free. Moreover the train carries him south from his dimwitted albeit dutiful wife; then to the city where he has a saucy yet laconic girlfriend, Shalini; and finally deposits him in Benaras where he finds gratifying character-assasination at the hands of a lovably cynical prostitute Sitara Jan. Therefore the movie is a vehicle for presenting a map of the human heart’s necessities, wants, and desires as it lies along the track 27 Down.

Early in the movie flashbacks to childhood establish the fear that Shanjay has of his father. Later in the narrative this fear becomes a guilt ridden responsibility as Shanjay’s mother dies and his father is crippled leaving Shanjay to take care of and gratify his father. The whole narrative is in a framework of Shanjay’s recollections as he rides in a bed car on the 27 Down, so the exposure his father receives is contemptuously obligatory. As a first example is his father’s wish for Shanjay to go and work for the same railroad company that he did. Shanjay seems to do this not only to begrudgingly gratify his father but also because after finishing schooling in sculpture he is without an alternative. This schooling is important because it stems from a fascination with the Venus de Milo he sees as a child and sets a symbolic agenda to find the perfect woman. Later as his father learns of Shanjay’s girlfriend, Shalini, he underhandedly arranges a marriage for his son and thus enacts another aspect of the constraint that is symbolized in Shanjay’s hometown. Just south of his hometown is Shanjay’s workplace (Bombay?) where he is free of family-obligation yet still constrained by a somewhat puritan society (ex: afraid to hold hands in public) and constrained by the requirements of having a job and keeping up an apartment. Benaras, the holiest of cities at the banks of the Ganges river symbolizes complete freedom for Shanjay’s spirit. Shanjay is free to roam, eat outdoors, stay in hotels, check permission from no one, and most importantly to consort openly with whores. However the lack of structure leaves an uncomfortable void in which Shanjay closely scrutinizes himself and his purpose in life.

The 27 Down is also a analog of Shanjay’s quest for the ideal woman. He has a dutiful wife that he resents but indulges with sex and gratuitous, if rare appearances at home. In the big city is where his main squeeze Shalini is. He likes her the most, probably based on her precarious balance between the loyalty of his wife and the laconic cynicism of Sitara-Jan. However he broods over how he cannot perpetuate their affair with the prophesy whenever we’re together I feel a shadow cast over us. I don’t know what it is. The immediate application of this shadow is the marriage which follows this statement a few days later, but in a broader sense it embodies the restlessness that Shanjay feels pulled by that will never allow him to remain with Shalini. Shanjay has a powerful wanderlust and must continually quest for the Holy Grail of womanhood. The film’s most outspoken opponent to Shanjay’s drive is the wickedly wonderful Sitara Jan. She abruptly dismisses the virtues of Shanjay’s other women and plainly states that she is better than both of them. Furthermore she indulges Shanjay’s carnal needs and contrarily refuses to give merit to his spiritual needs and subsequently denies them. The scene where Shanjay pillow-talks to Sitara Jan and after promising a long stay pleads for her to leave the lights on after he falls asleep. The presence of the light is welcome and soothe Shanjay when he wakes from his inevitable nightmares, the ones that are products of his frightening insatiability. She muses on his request for half a second before she disregards it outright, putting her ability to go to sleep above the comfort of Shanjay’s awakening. In fact it is a kind of awakening that Shanjay is truly questing for : the notion that the process of travelling will facilitate Shanjay awaking into the right place and the right state of being. Moreover since awaking is something that must occur perpetually throughout life so then must Shanjay’s quest be perpetuated.


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