I have Zee Cinema to thank for renewed acquaintance with many cherished classics from my misspent childhood – such as The Burning Train, which used to be my favourite non-Amitabh film as a seven-year-old (in fact it’s still my favourite non-Amitabh film as a seven-year-old).
Dharam paaji and Vinod Khanna are childhood buddies who serenade Hema Malini and Parveen Babi by cycling after them and singing one of the most instantly forgettable songs of the 1980s (I forget what it was called). This comes on the heels of an elaborate gag where each one pretends to eve-tease the other guy’s girl so that each of them gets to play hero in turn; these shenanigans will provide useful practice for the scenes much later in the film when they have to clamber about the side of the train dressed in smart silver-foil outfits (fuzzy pic below), fighting Danny Denzongpa.
After much coquettish wiggling of noses by the ladies, the two couples settle into happy domesticity and produce a brood of younglings, played by intolerable child actors who make horrible ululating sounds whenever they have to cry (making the viewer want to smack them on the head so they might do some impromptu Method acting instead). The plot of this movie, set a few years after the cycle-serenade episode, ensures there will be plenty for them to cry about.
The best thing about The Burning Train is that the title isn’t an obscure metaphor-ish thingie, as in those movies made by Bresson and suchlike – the film really is about a burning train, or more accurately, a train that is burning. There’s plenty of (intended) metaphor in the story though, with the imperiled chook-chook and its disparate passengers representing the Many Colours of India. Clad in elegant white (a terrifying portent of things to come on satellite television 20 years later) is Simi Garewal as a Catholic schoolteacher escorting a tribe of wailing little monsters. There’s a Hindu priest and a Muslim maulvi who initially squabble but later, faced with certain Death, smile sadly at each other and agree that when you’re being roasted alive in an unstoppable moving oven, religion suddenly doesn’t seem so hot. A loud-voiced but genial Sardarji rounds off this touching panorama. (He will volunteer to unravel his turban later for the Greater Good, just as a lady passenger will remove her sari.) There’s even a pregnant woman, though surprisingly her presence doesn’t lead to any of the “kindly give berth” variety of jokes that I would certainly have incorporated into the script.
Best of all there’s Jeetendra, who shows up halfway through the movie and, without prelude, performs an elaborate dance with Neetu Singh, for once dressed in something other than her favourite fisherwoman outfit (regardless of what she’s playing). When the train starts to burn, Jeetu teams up with Dharam and Veenu and they all change into those silver-foil costumes that people in sci-fi films wear to prevent alien beings from sucking out their mojo.
Jeetu’s white shoes go very well with the foil outfit, and Dharam and Veenu are envious – but they put these differences aside to save the train by doing a series of complicated things (which even they don’t fully understand) in the boiler room, and by kicking Danny off the roof. There is much cheering as Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims embrace: the crisis has united them and never again will there be riots or race-killings. Hema looks appreciatively at Dharam’s silver-foil suit as he gets off the train. “This film is dedicated to the courage of the people, and the soul of India which has remained uncorrupted” says a closing credit. Audiences were courageous enough to stay away from theatres in droves, and The Burning Train was an uncorrupted flop.
[P.S. This film really does have an enormous cast – including Paintal and Keshto Mukherjee, both credited as “Passenger in toilet” on the IMDB page. I must’ve missed that bit.]