Writer: Shaurya Agarwal and Akriti Singh
Director: Akriti Singh
If ever a film should be turned into a play, then this is it. Set mainly in a train waiting room in India, Akriti Singh’s film makes perfect theatre. Based on real life events from 1974, when a mysterious princess demanded to see Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in the middle of a railway workers strike, Toofan Mail has plenty to say about the legacy of colonialism. The British may have left, but their rule is still keenly felt.
It’s because of the British Raj that the railway workers are on strike, protesting against their 36 hour shifts that the colonists established. And it’s because of the British that India was divided, and Hindus in the new Pakistan were forced to move to India, leaving behind their homes. Station Master Gurpreet used to live in a palace in Lahore before Partition; now he lives in two rooms with his mother.
Another person claiming to be displaced is the Princess of Awadh, who arrives at Gurpreet’s regional station with a small retinue. They get off the train with silks, tea-things, and an amazing chandelier, which they hoist onto the ceiling of the waiting room they occupy, proclaiming that they will not move until a meeting with the Prime Minister is arranged.
The Princess – or Queen as she is sometimes said to be – wants Ghandi to return the palace and the estate of her family that the Indian Government has confiscated, seemingly another throwback to the British Raj. But can she be trusted to be who she says she is? She has no documents, and no money. And she looks as sad as Bette Davis.
Gurpreet tries to evict her from his waiting room, but is soon beguiled by her and by her attendants who remind every visitor to address the Princess as ‘Her Royal Highness’. One servant even shuffles around on his knees when he has a message to give her. It’s comical, but, as we well know here in the UK, royalty can possess the strangest protocols.
Toofan Mail is directed by Akriti Singh, and she also plays the Princess. Both roles are mainly successful, but the film is often choppy with shots coming from different angles in rapid succession. But despite the erratic editing, Singh manages to create an ethereal atmosphere, which is part dreamscape, part magical ennui. One of the local workers even believes that the Princess and her court are djinns, and offers Gupreet his talisman for protection.
Although Surya Rao is excellent as Gupreet, a man trapped by duty, this is Singh’s film and she gives the Princess a quiet dignity, and a poignant wretchedness that could come from boredom, but there’s a sense too that like, Gupreet, she too is trapped. Saying that this film would be more at home on the stage shouldn’t distract from Singh’s vision in her debut film. She could have told this strange event straightforwardly, but instead she imbues it with an enigmatic longing that’s hard to resist.
The UK Asian Film Festival runs here nationwide and online from 26 May until 6 June 2021