8 Down Toofan Mail is based on the real story of late Wilayat Mahal and her family, who lived in a railway station in Delhi, demanding the restoration of their royal properties that were first seized by the British, and then by the Indian government.
The movie opens with the arrival of the train, and people getting down and then moving away to their destinations. The camera captures different activities and then pans to the primary characters. The camera focuses on the hasty movements of a group of people as they walk straight to the first-class waiting room. The station master asks them to leave immediately. However, they decide not to. Then a man from the group comes forward and tells the station master that the lady with them is the Princess of Avadh. He explains to the station master that they will not leave the station until Prime Minister Indira Gandhi restores the Princess' properties.
The film then focuses on one of the major incidents in modern Indian history—the emergency. The government has already declared an emergency in the country and has arrested George Fernandez, the leader of the railway workers' union.
With these basic initial inputs and an introduction to the plots, 8 Down Toofan Mail catches up with a straightforward, and multi-layered narrative. It also shows the impact the Princess had on the Indian political scenario of the time. How her interview with a foreign journalist before receiving any response from the Prime Minister's Office brought a political storm in the country.
8 Down Toofan Mail, directed by Akriti Singh, is a recreation of a real-life incident, and the director has remained honest with the plot. She has brilliantly shaped the character with her vision and interpretation. She deserves praise for her courage and intelligence for doing such brilliant work on a shoestring budget. The film's production philosophy resembles that of managing amateur theatre groups, where scarcity of money compels the director to go for a suggestive set. Furthermore, the team members were required to perform multiple tasks in the production. The director had shown the New Delhi rail station signboard in one or two scenes and established the identity of the environment. Such tactics are adopted when the low-budget drama team cannot visualise a big production.
The director deserves credit for creating the feelings of a vast station like New Delhi in a comparatively smaller station. The story has many ongoing and situational problems. It is unknown whether the woman will see the Prime Minister, have her way with the palace, and what she will do once the railway strike is over. The major problem appears in the form of a question: whether her identity is genuine or fake. These questions and concerns enhance the dramatic excitement and leave no opportunity to move one's eyes to the other aspects of the production of the screenplay.
The film's primary concept revolves around the theme of agony, anguish, and identity crisis of unrooted human beings and souls. Partition and governance had forced the princess out of her royal palace. This anguish and agony have been brilliantly captured on camera by the director in one of the scenes where she questions PM Gandhi over the phone as to why she was deprived of her fundamental property rights when the PM herself was relishing on her father's estate.
The film's cinematography is stunning. Despite being a period drama, the makers did not invest much in the set design. However, the cinematographer visualised the shots with the meaningful placing of the minimum available properties. The shots are uncluttered, the properties and characters get more attention.
A major portion of the film has been shot inside the waiting room of a railway station, and in such a compact place, the cinematographer hardly finds enough space for free movement. Yet, Souraya Agarwal, the DoP of the film, brilliantly managed his movements and composed his shots flawlessly.
The element that gives a particular dimension to the visual narrative is the simultaneous existence of reality and fantasy. The DoP played with this contrast efficiently, technically and aesthetically. The synchronisation of the director's imagination with the DoP's skills and the editor's craft has seamlessly merged. It has wrapped the film with a "surreal" feeling.
The screenplay writer has successfully constructed a narrative of limited events with excitement, generating immense curiosity among the viewers.
The successful presentation of a period story as a feature film with a minimalist approach has announced the arrival of an influential director. The director has made the entire film simple, exciting, and dynamic. She has expressed the varied, complicated content with due importance. It is difficult to make a film entertaining with no compromising statements. Especially when the vehicle of the narrative is static and confined to one single location. In such a situation, it is difficult to manage the requisite pace of the film. The director has effortlessly passed this examination.
Akriti Sing essays the character of the Princess and does justice to the character with her intelligent expression and skilled control of the voice, carrying the film on her shoulder. Surya Rao as the station master, Gurpreet, has also done a commendable job, and his presentation of the character growth was subtle. The other actors also proved themselves as an organic part of the film.
Music is relatively minimal in the film. The background score of the film supports the pressed and controlled excitement. The song "Babul Mora Naihar Chutri Gaye" is undoubtedly pleasant. Still, the recognisable factor of the song easily breaks the illusion. The overly loud rendering of one piece has hurt the film's visual quality. Especially when many questions arise at the end of the film, the silence could have made the scene more heart-warming instead of the high-pitched song.
8 Down Toofan Mail starts with the girl's arrival. She influenced the station master to a great extent, and the film ends with the expression of the station master. The film's structure could have been more justified by starting with the station master from this angle. His character demands more visuals from his job for more clarity.
While the director decorates the story with many elements, the film's main point is the pain and struggle for the rights of the root-less people. If this aspect of the crisis had gone a little more into the social sense, the film would have gained even more importance.
In a nutshell, 8 Down Toofan Mail will occupy a special space in the history of Indian film for its bold, intelligent, and creative filmmaking process. It is an entertaining film made out of a complex subject.
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