16 February 2009


Would it be right to suggest that trains are an iconographic aspect of Indian cinema that has been consistent since urbanisation took hold of society way back in the 1930s or is it purely a coincidence that most of the finest and much celebrated Indian films all feature the visible or aural presence of the train. Currently, the success of a film like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ seems to have generated wider interest in Bollywood cinema but Danny Boyle’s film understands that you cannot possibly shoot a film in India without referencing the convention and potent symbolism offered by the image of the train. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ climaxes at a train station, Jamal is separated from Latika by a train and after the lovers have embraced, Danny Boyle stages a mock dance sequence at a train platform. You could argue that’s the film’s narrative is effectively interlinked via the motif of the train as it works to sever and unite our enamoured lovers.

The fixation with trains in mainstream Indian cinema in part extends from Bengali cinema and the films of Satyajit Ray. It is the motif of the train’s unexpected arrival and departure in the foreground that cuts a path across ‘The Apu Trilogy’, eventually haunting and consuming the shattered figure of Apu. The image of the train and its aural presence in many of Ray’s films brings a sense of foreboding, and ultimately it is the harbinger of death. As a metaphor for urbanisation and change, the motif of the train has been repeated endlessly throughout Bengali cinema, but unlike in mainstream cinema where it brought the promise of freedom, regeneration and optimism, it was represented by Ray in particular as a negative, destructive force. So whether the presence of a train in an Indian film is symbolic, metaphorical or even political, it is an iconographic element that cannot be denied and must be acknowledged as an expression of life and death.


APUR SANSAR / THE WORLD OF APU – (Dir. Satyajit Ray , 1959)

In the final part of Ray’s masterful trilogy, Apu’s anguish over the death of his wife is powerfully interrupted by the shrieking sound of a passing train. It is no ordinary sound, it is one we have become quite familiar with in the earlier films, a sound that signals doom and in this case, death.

EK LAVAYA / THE ROYAL GUARD (Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2006)

Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s intimate epic has been one of the few contemporary films to feature a noteworthy performance from Amitabh Bhachan. One of the stand out sequences in the film occurs at a railway crossing; as the train passes, a whirlwind of sand and dust consumes an assassin and the royal guard (Amitabh Bhachan) sworn to protect the king trapped in his car. It all ends tragically.


DIL SE / FROM THE HEART (Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1998)

Gulzar’s melancholic lyrics, Farah Khan’s exquisite choreography, Santosh Sivan’s vivid images and Shah Rukh’s floppy hairdo combine with Ratnam’s gutsy, extravagant execution of the song ‘Dil Se’ on a moving train to create a sequence that is simply timeless and unashamedly enjoyable.


(Dir. Nasir Hussain, 1973)

One of the biggest hits of the 1970s and still fondly remembered for its soundtrack, ‘Yaadon Ki Baaraat’ is the quintessential ‘lost and found’ film. It features one of the best star entrances you are ever likely to come across in a Bollywood film. The star in question was none other than Dharmendra whose appearance is signposted quite explicitly and dramatically by the sudden appearance of a passing train. The camera cuts from Dharmendra the dishevelled young boy to Dharmendra the flamboyant superstar.


THE NAMESAKE (Dir. Mira Nair, 2006)

Opening with a train crash, Ashok Ganguly (Irfan Khan) is discovered in the wreckage holding on to a copy of Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’. His fear of trains remains with him through his life but it provides a sacred connection with his son, Gogol. In this case, the image of the train becomes an overwhelming symbol of fate.


(Dir. Priyadarshan, 1995)

At the end of the film, having taken the law into his own hands, Shakti Thakur (Anil Kapoor), the son of an influential landlord, surrenders himself to the police. The villagers descend upon the train station where Shakti is placed onto a train and taken away to face trial for the crimes he has committed. As his wife, Gehna (Tabu), looks on in dismay, it becomes strikingly clear that finally some sense of law and order has been restored and perhaps even justice prevails. Ironically, Shakti arrives on a train, full of promise and hope yet also departs on a train as a radically different person.

SWADES / HOMELAND (Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2005)

Mohan Bhargava (Shahrukh Khan), a NASA scientist who has returned to his village in hope of persuading his surrogate mother to immigrate back with him to America becomes increasingly complicated when he comes face to face with a stark social reality. On his short return from encountering an impoverished family, Mohan’s train briefly pauses at a platform so passengers can get refreshments. As Mohan waits, overwhelmed with the poverty he sees, a little boy is seen selling water to reluctant train passengers. What works about this moment is not the unashamed poverty on display but rather the blunt truth that water is such a precious commodity yet to ask someone to pay for it seems like a crime. In this case, the train initiates a personal revolution to bring some hope to the people of his village.


ABHIJAN / THE EXPIDITION (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1962)

Ray’s fixation of trains seemed to span his entire film career. In his most commercially successful film, Soumitra Chatterjee plays Narsingh, an arrogant taxi driver who finds it problematic to part with his precious 1930 American Chrysler. In a telling sequence in the film, Narsingh puts his Chrysler to the test by racing a train, underlining how modernity and change were grossly over rated.


DILWALE DULHANIA LE JAYENGE (Dir. Aditya Chopra, 1995)

VEER ZAARA (Dir. Yash Chopra, 2007)

SAATHIYA (Dir. Shaad Ali, 2002)

Many of the European immigrants who made the journey to Hollywood in the 1940s brought with them a dark vein of poetic fatalism. ‘Letter From an Unknown Woman’, directed by Max Ophuls in 1948, saw two lovers part company at a train station, doomed never to meet again. Such fatalism seems pretty much absent from the romantic elements of many Bollywood films and recent ones in particular have tended to use trains as a force of destiny, providence and most importantly, love. Perhaps the most celebrated contemporary Bollywood train moment occurs at the end of Aditya Chopra’s 1995 blockbuster spectacle ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (The Brave Hearted Will Take The Bride) when Simran (Kajol) is melodramatically united with her lover, Raj (Shahrukh Khan). In ‘Saathiya’ (a remake of a Mani Ratnam’s film ‘Alaipayuthey’), relationships seem to be defined by the presence of trains, which not only bring people together but also act as a force of disruption and displacement.


SHOLAY / EMBERS (Dir. Ramesh Sippy, 1975)

I guess no cannon on Indian cinema would really be complete without a reference to a film like ‘Sholay’. Why this film continues to enthral audiences today is simply baffling. I don’t feel it measures up to any of the films Amitabh Bhachan made in the 1970s. Borrowing liberally from Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, ‘Sholay’ is hugely over rated and many aspects of the film have not stood the test of time, but the brilliant dialogue and on screen chemistry between Amitabh and Dharmendra continues to inspire film makers today. It does feature an exceptionally well executed train sequence in which our ingenious heroes (Jai and Veeru) battle some gruesome bandits attempting to hijack a train.


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