Judge Michael Nazarewycz is looking for the Club Car.
"We were of course not working for money, we were also working for happiness."
Sometimes a film's title alone is enough to pique my interest to watch it, particularly when it comes to documentaries. Lucky Express is one of those titles. The dichotomy of something being "lucky" versus kids who are "forgotten" is what drew me to consider this film for review. Plus, my enjoyment earlier this year of another India-themed documentary, The World Before Her, had me ready to delve into another facet of that country's culture.
Facts of the Case
Lucky is a twenty-something aspiring filmmaker who ran away from home and spent his childhood living on a railroad platform in his native India. To survive, he was a pickpocket. His is not a rare story.
At the thousands of train stations along the tens of thousands of miles of Indian Railways track, other children find themselves in similar straits. Either as runaways like Lucky or as agents of their families, over 120,000 children (each year) make their way to the platforms and become pickpockets, rag-pickers, bottle collectors, or even prostitutes, all in the name of scratching together the equivalent of about five bucks a day. Gangs will recruit them or the police will beat them, but once they find themselves in this vicious cycle (according to a title card):
"About 90% of these children engage in substance abuse, most commonly glue-sniffing."
There are advocates who do their best to save these children, but the sheer volume of the "Forgotten Train Kids" makes large-scale hope almost impossible.
If you consider the children a singular collective, there are three subjects in Lucky Express: the kids, Lucky himself, and an education pioneer named Inderjit Khurana. Yet despite this wealth of interwoven source material, first-time documentarian Anna Fischer presents too much of the first, not enough of the second, and a little of both for the third.
I appreciate that 120,000 children find their way to India's platforms each year. That doesn't mean I need to meet all of them. In an 87-minute film, we are introduced to about a dozen different kids, and each kid's tale is just as woeful as the last. One is addicted to huffing glue. One lost a leg. One witnessed atrocities against others. One was beaten by police. And so on. Then tack on B-roll of countless other children existing in these deplorable conditions. The kids-as-subject stops being a movie very quickly and becomes a roll call. I'm not insensitive to their plight, but by the time the film was over, Fischer's choice to present quantity over quality left me remembering a list of sorrows but not a single name or face to attach to those sorrows.
Lucky suffers from somewhat the opposite fate. Having been a Train Kid himself, he is the connection between Fischer and her subjects. He is also the only one who can speak on her behalf when it comes to gaining access to those subjects. He does camera work for the director. His name is in the title. Yet the only additional thing we learn about him comes late in the film when he attempts to reunite with his family, which he hasn't seen since he left for those platforms as a boy. There are so many questions that could be asked and answered about Lucky's time between childhood and film school, but none of it is explored.
The film's third subject is Inderjit Khurana, and her story might be the most fascinating. The late educator (she passed during the making of the film) established a collection of "platform schools" (schools literally at train station platforms) and engaged in other endeavors in an effort to educate the Train Kids and perhaps spare them a bleak future. She is, by far, the most interesting person in the film. However, rather that offer more insight into Khurana's life path, Fischer again opts to throw bodies at us in the form of numerous Khurana representatives. These tireless champions of children offer their own stories about the platform school experience; so many, in fact, the effect is not unlike watching the Train Kids. At one point I found myself thinking, "Another one? But I want to know more about that last one."
From a technical perspective, there's nothing remarkable—either positively or negatively—about the video imagery, other than to say that there are no particular WOW moments even when there could be, like when Lucky sees the ocean for the first time or during his visit to the Ganges River. The sound is always clear, which is particularly important given how dialogue-heavy the doc is, and how much of that dialogue is spoken by people for whom English is a second language.
Other than the film's trailer, there is only one extra: a 90-second slide show of production and other stills. This slide show is presented with no audio.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a very late add-on (the last 15 minutes), Fischer introduces us to three young men who, like Lucky, lived on the platforms and lived to tell. These introductions are nothing more than a few sentences from each of three subjects, preceded by a title card with each guy's name and key information. Blink and you miss them. That time could have been allotted to something earlier in the film, or the trio could have been ignored entirely in exchange for more time for Lucky's story. It was all so very frustrating to watch.
Lucky Express left me with the impression that the story was simply too big for Fischer to handle. In lieu of being able to craft an engaging narrative about so many kids and Lucky's road in life and Khurana's contributions to the betterment of India and the add-on success stories, Fischer either throws as much as she can onscreen or glosses over it quickly.
Even though the children are sympathetic and their plight is terrible, the film is still guilty.
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