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Romancing the railways

If you are keen to collect Tapas Bagchi’s autograph, prepare to get it now. After this week, this “senior traffic inspector” based at Howrah will be so big you won’t even be able to get close to his PR people.

For our Tapas Babu is one of the three heroes through whom Gerry Troyna, a BBC filmmaker, tells the “fantastic” story of Indian railways.

Called Monsoon Railway, the two-part TV documentary, each 50 minutes long, will be shown on May 12 and 13 on BBC4. Later, it will get a screening on the National Geographic Channel and hopefully one day on BBC World.

I don’t know what it is about the Brits but they adore travelling by train in India.

“If I didn’t get covered by soot, I would demand my money back,” Mark Tully told me once when India still had steam trains.

Troyna, who has made several documentaries on Indian railways over the past 20 years, returned last year to shoot his film (using an entirely Indian crew) in West Bengal and Assam.

Bagchi figures as “a troubleshooter who is called out day or night to resolve hold-ups and problems; in the film he has to negotiate with strikers who have halted all the Calcutta-bound trains in a protest (this sounds like a normal day to me). After some hard bargaining, he persuades them to continue their demonstration peacefully and let the trains pass unimpeded”.

Apart from Bagchi, he has used Steve D’Cruz, a senior guard in Kharagpur, and Subhash Kumar Rai, who is a young “Dad” (diesel assistant driver) in Rangiya. The lashing monsoon provides the dramatic backdrop to the documentary. Like Ol’ Man River, our trains just keep rolling on (mind you a couple of trips ago, my over-cautious sister made me abandon a much looked forward to trip from Howrah to Bolpur because the return journey could not be guaranteed due to risk of flooding).

“The Indian railways are a metaphor for the country and its people,” says Troyna, who is also the producer, writer and cameraman on the film (he is in danger of bagging the “Subhash Ghai Lifetime Achievement Award” for multi-tasking).

The Indian railways are “the biggest civil employer in the world, employing 1.5 million people who help to transport 11 million passengers every day. There are 40,000 miles of track, which is up 30 per cent on British times.”

“This is an an affectionate look at the railways,” adds Troyna, 56, whose previous documentaries include Deccan (on the Bombay to Cochin Line), Line of Dreams (on the Jodhpur to Jaipur track) and East to West (Calcutta to Jaisalmer).

I point out that Indian railways need to improve their safety record but here, too, Troyna, believes things are improving.

“There were only 150 accidents last year, which is 50 per cent down on the 350 accidents in 2003,” he points out.

Troyna’s craze for India has been passed on to his son, Toby, who first went to India at 16 and chose to get married to his English fiancee Nikki in a Hindu ceremony in Udaipur in January this year.

“Definitely the genes have been passed on,” Toby’s father assured me.

Way to go

Victor Banerjee, whom I shall forever think of as Dr Aziz in David Lean’s A Passage to India, is keen to get involved in the film version of The Far Pavilions.

The musical, based on M.M. Kaye’s novel, is now running at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End, but already there is talk of making an English-language film (as well as a Hindi one for which Javed Akhtar might write the lyrics/script).

There was a mini-TV series which was made in 1984, with a “blacked up” American actress, Amy Irving, playing the lead role of Princess Anjuli. The other cast members were Ben Cross, who played Ashton Pelham-Martyn, the English soldier with a dil hai Hindustani; Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee.

Kabir Bedi is currently playing the role of Koda Dad Khan Saheb, Master of Horses to the Maharajah of Gulkote, in the musical. This role should also have been played by Bedi in the TV series but since he was shooting the Bond movie, Octupussy, at the time, he had to give way to Omar Sharif.

I found Victor deep in conversation with Michael Ward, the producer of the musical, and his wife, Elaine.

“They want to make the film,” adds Victor, who was in London, partly to shoot a Bollywood movie.

“In the new film version, which will be in English and much more romantic than the stage version, I will play Koda Dad Khan,” says Victor, who has clearly taken over as casting director as well.

Labour gains

Many journalists complained that this was not an exciting election but I can’t agree. I had a great time in Leicester East, watching Keith Vaz defend his 13,442 majority in the 2001 election.

While most other Labour MPs saw their majorities reduced ' this was because of the unpopularity of Tony Blair and the Iraq war ' Vaz, who is of Goan origin, actually registered a swing from the Tories to Labour. Quite remarkably, his majority went up to 15,876.

I trust Vaz will buy Dalip Tahil a glass or two of Chablis for services rendered. I enjoyed going round the Asian streets of Leicester as the Bollywood actor campaigned for Vaz.

Dalip’s message was that the people of Leicester should vote for Keith Vaz, otherwise “Gabbar would come in the night and get you”. It seems to have done the trick.

Dress code

Charles and Camilla (the Duchess of Cornwall to you and me) will be the chief guests this week at a gala production of The Far Pavilions.

The big question is whether she will be brave enough to wear the “lovely green sari” sent to her by the dabbawallahs of Mumbai.

Tittle tattle

FIT AS A FIDDLE : Tony and Cherie Blair

Even by the standards of politicians who will do anything to get elected, the exchange Tony and Cherie Blair had with a photographer from the Sun was unbelievable.

Tony, egged on by Cherie, said he was “very fit”.

“What, five times a night'” asked the incredulous photographer.

“At least, I can do it more depending on how I feel,” replied the 52-year-old PM.

“Are you up to it'” asked the photographer.

Cherie cut in: “He always is.”

The Sun’s page-one headline (referring to Blair’s majority) carried a double meaning: “Why Size Matters”.

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