[A vignette-ish piece I did for The Indian Quarterly, about train scenes in Indian cinema. Many more films and sequences could have been mentioned, of course - feel free to add to the list]
One of the earliest "movies" to be screened – perhaps the most famous of its time – was a 50-second record of a train pulling into a station: the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, made in 1895. There is something oddly apt about this early union of locomotive and celluloid, for trains represent movement, and movement was also the unique selling point of those mystical things called motion pictures, which began to haunt people’s dreams towards the end of the 19th century.
No wonder there is a widely told story about viewers leaping out of their seats in terror as the Lumières’ train seemed to head towards them. The story may be exaggerated, but it sounds like it should be true: as a famous line in an American Western (a movie genre that would make significant use of the railroad) put it, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” So let us propose that that train was the first ever movie monster (dare one say “bogie-man”?) – predating filmic depictions of literary characters like Dracula or Frankenstein or Mr Hyde, not to mention the thousands of monsters that were first dreamt up for cinema.
|(Illustration by SOMESH KUMAR)|
Might Satyajit Ray have had this in mind when he employed train imagery to such sinister effect in the Apu Trilogy? There are scenes in Pather Panchali and Aparajito – visualisations of Ray’s carefully drawn storyboards – where a train seen in the distance, moving across the landscape, resembles a venomous black serpent. In these scenes, the locomotive with its trailing plumes of smoke also reminds me of the hooded Grim Reaper wielding his scythe in another film of the era, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. And indeed, the trains in these early Ray films are closely linked to death: the young protagonist Apu frequently suffers the loss of people he loves, beginning with his sister Durga – with whom he waits in the fields for a glimpse of the passing train.
In the larger context of modern Indian history, trains have another very dark association: the most vivid horror stories about Partition involve ghost trains containing massacred bodies, moving back and forth across the newly created border, and there have been echoes in more recent tragedies like the 2002 Godhra train massacre. Ray’s contemporary Ritwik Ghatak was among the few directors who used trains – in films such as Megha Dhaka Tara – to emphasise fractured relationships in a country divided along communal lines.
However, making trains a representation of a single idea would be folly: it is equally possible to see them as the things that bind a large and complex nation. If they can be tied to death and destruction, they can also stand for development – the development of an individual, or of society itself. Remember that it is on a train that Apu travels to a life with bright new possibilities, from village to city. And consider how one of our most iconic films, Sholay, is book-ended by shots of moving trains. The opening scene has a train coming towards the camera (a nod to the Lumières?) before the camera moves forward to meet it, almost like an impatient family member. Sholay owes a big debt to the Western, and in that genre the railroad was a symbol of progress and civilisation. Little wonder then that the film's first action sequence has Veeru and Jai proving their heroism (and their status as “good guys”) by fighting off bandits who are trying to pillage a train. Not long after this, a train will carry the two men to a station near Ramgarh village, where the epic confrontation between good and evil will take place.
Incidentally, though trains play an important function in Sholay, I find it difficult to picture Gabbar Singh traveling in one. Being a representation of primal evil, Gabbar inhabits a universe very different from that of the modern railroad. He lords it over his minions in a sun-baked, rocky valley far from the civilised world, trades with gypsies, and is associated with the outdoors; enclosed spaces, be they prison cells or train compartments, cannot contain him.
But let’s stage a little drama of our own now. Let’s imagine a special cinematic train – the Matinee Express? – made up of as many compartments as we could possibly need, and with no attempt at internal consistency. Thus, one section of this train could be a luxurious, velvet-curtained, gliding hotel of the sort that Anna Karenina would make an overnight journey on, but there would also be the squalid, overcrowded compartments that are so familiar to almost anyone who has traveled by train in India. And the people in this imaginary vehicle would represent different character types and situations, all filtered through our cinematic memories.
And let us begin with a contrast in moods, as exemplified by two songs. Sitting in one of the first compartments is Maanav, played by Dharmendra in the 1974 film Dost, and the song in his head is the beautiful “Gaadi Bula Rahi Hai”, which uses a train as an inspiration to draw the best from life: “Chalna hee zindagi hai / Chalti hee jaa rahee hai” (Life means movement / the train keeps moving). As our locomotive enters and exits hillside tunnels, the song exhorts young people to learn the following lesson: the train has fire in its belly, it toils away and bellows smoke (“Sar pe hai bojh / seene mein aag”), yet it continues to sing and whistle (“phir bhi yeh gaa rahi hai / nagme suna rahi hai”). What better analogy can there be for working hard and honestly, and staying upbeat as well?
But further back in another compartment, looking mournfully out the window, is a less sanguine hero from that same year, Kamal (Rajesh Khanna) in Aap Ki Kasam, and a less upbeat tune: “Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hain jo makaam / woh phir nahin aate” (In life’s journey, when you leave a place behind / you never see it again). Here again, life is presented as a train journey, but one where each departing station represents something that has been irretrievably lost.
Since time travel is no constraint on our fantasy journey, let’s go back a few decades to the early 1950s and make room for a villager named Shambhu, who is eager to clamber into the cattle-class section. The hero of Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin is on his way to the big city to earn enough money to pay off a debt – at this point the train is for him a vessel to a better, more fulfilling life, so we won’t tell him that his illusions will soon be shattered. Instead, we’ll allow him a few hours of grace in the company of his little son, who is stowed away on our Matinee Express because he wanted to be with his father, but also because of the sheer novelty of being on a train: “Calcutta toh rail gaadi se jaana hoga, na?” he asks. (We can only travel to Calcutta by train, right?)
When hard reality does strike, Shambhu might be demoted to the Bogie of Lost Travelers. This is a purgatory for forgotten souls – for people who are trying to escape from themselves – and here all differences of class and background melt away. Thus, in one corner sit the many Devdases of our movie heritage, accompanied by their faithful but despairing servants. This is the tragic protagonist’s last journey: just as it seems like he might yet be able to redeem himself, the train stops at a station and he encounters his old friend Chunnilal, who does nothing more useful than tempt our hero into another fatal drinking session.
Elsewhere in the Lost Travelers’ compartment is a less central character from another major film, Deewaar: the disgraced trade unionist Anand Verma, father of the film’s heroes Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) and Ravi (Shashi Kapoor). Anand left his family when his children were little; many years later, when they are young men, their destinies firmly set on opposite sides of the law, his corpse is discovered on a train and we realise he has spent half his life shunting aimlessly from one station to another. This means he has probably covered the country a thousand times over, but it scarcely matters: for Anand Verma, Devdas and their sad brethren, the train is a moving coffin, not the means to a destination but the destination itself.
Enough morbidity; let’s get some positive energy into our chook-chook now. There is place in this cinematic fantasy for double and triple roles, and so, as we pass under another bridge, we can see another Dharmendra – the Shankar of Yaadon ki Baarat – looking down at us thoughtfully. Just a few seconds earlier, this character was a young boy standing at exactly the same spot on the bridge, but then a 360-degree camera movement (which also showed the train passing below) allowed him to morph into the man. Perhaps this is an example of the train as a metaphor for growth – after all, there is no dearth of scenes in those action-hero-centred movies of the 1970s and 80s where a fleeing child leaps off a bridge onto the train running underneath; when his feet hits the top of the compartment, he is the grown-up hero.
That said, trains might also permit one to go in the opposite direction, to regress into childhood – and who is this man-child in half-pants, licking at a lollipop, hopping aboard our rail-gaadi? It is the Vijay (Kishore Kumar) of Half Ticket, who has disguised himself as a child because he doesn’t have the train fare for an adult. We recognise the deception, but we’ll let him in; his presence will provide some entertainment during our ride, and serve as a reminder that trains can be mobile amusement parks if you have the right company and a sense of humour.
Having stopped briefly at that last station, the Matinee Express is now pulling away, but not at great speed, which is just as well, for a soulful young man is posing dramatically at the door, stretching his hand out. A few suspenseful moments later another, softer hand meets his and a young woman is pulled onto the coach and into his arms. Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) of Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge are on their way to a bright future together, and it scarcely matters to us (being allies of young romance) that she hasn’t bought a ticket.
Elsewhere, a more discreet romance is being conducted between Vandana (Sharmila Tagore), the demure heroine of Aradhana, and a dashing air force officer named Arun (Rajesh Khanna); she is in a special mini-compartment, reading or pretending to read - Alistair MacLean, no less - while he is in an open jeep passing on the road outside, and flowing between them is the song “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani”. But Sharmila Tagore must be allowed one more role in our improbable mise-en-scène, so here she is again, more serious-looking, as a magazine editor named Aditi, who confronts a film star named Arindam (Uttam Kumar) and makes him face his private demons. The film is Satyajit Ray’s Nayak, and mark the contrast from the Apu Trilogy: the director appears to have got over his fear of train-travel and is now using one as a setting for personal therapy. Not long after this, he will even set part of his rollicking adventure Sonar Kella – with the detective Feluda pursuing villains from Bengal to Rajasthan – on a train.
Speaking of adventure, one of the most sustained train movies we have ever had – where most of the action takes place in a train and the plot centres on a super-fast train too – is B R Chopra’s The Burning Train, which was a big-budget disaster movie in the Hollywood tradition while also being a shining tribute to the railways and to Indian unity. Having made sure that our magic train has a generous supply of fire extinguishers, I’m now going to allow some of the characters from that film on board.
They represent the many colours of India, so here are a Hindu priest and a Muslim maulvi who initially bicker but later find common ground. Here is a Catholic schoolteacher escorting a tribe of children, and a loud-voiced but genial Sardarji. With this motley crew, who can resist a few songs? But with the arrival of the villains, our heroes are forced to climb outside the speeding vehicle and onto the roof of the compartment, where a battle for life and death will ensue.
Watching them from the distance of a few compartments – and the span of more than 40 years – with a little smirk on her face is Fearless Nadia, who has seen and done all this before these boys were even born. Among the earliest of her films was Miss Frontier Mail (1936), its title derived from the real Frontier Mail of the era, which – as Rosie Thomas puts it in an essay about Nadia – was “the height of glamorous modernity, its name synonymous with speed, adventure and the sophistication of the railways”. Nadia brought an element of chaos to that sophistication as she fought baddies on train rooftops, and her films also drew intriguing parallels between a speedy train and a fast-modernising world, where a woman could do all the things that fell traditionally in the male domain (and do them twice as well).
If the open spaces atop trains are perfect setting for such fight sequences – or for the equally rambunctious performance of such songs as “Chhaiya Chhaiya” (Dil Se...), the interiors of trains can be closed and claustrophobic, and thus effective settings for suspense or intrigue. (Think Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes or Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.) One of our fellow passengers – sitting by himself in an overcoat – is an intense young man with a preoccupied look on his face. This is Kumar (Amitabh Bachchan) of Parwana (1971), who is using this train journey as part of an elaborate alibi that will enable him to commit murder without being found out. But in the very same compartment, unbeknownst to him, is his admirer and doppelganger, the title character in Johnny Gaddaar (2007) who was so inspired by the plot of Parwana that he employs a similar technique to pull off a complicated heist.
Of course, all our characters don’t actually have to be on board – some very poignant movie moments involve people who are seeing off other people but going nowhere themselves. Notable among these is Salim Mirza (Balraj Sahni) in Garm Hava, standing ramrod straight, bravely concealing his sorrow as one family member after another leaves him for the freshly created country across the post-Partition border. And there is the armless Thakur in a similar pose at the end of Sholay, his own life barren as the desert, but watching others move on with theirs, as the train carrying Veeru and Basanti pulls out of the station. Or think of the metaphoric use of the railway station waiting room as a crossroad: in Gulzar’s Ijaazat, a divorced couple named Mahender (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudha (Rekha) re-encounter each other and exchange memories and revelations. We never see either of them getting on to a train, and we don’t need to.
I’m going to exercise an engineer’s licence here and permit our fantasy train to have a few compartments that are meant only for very short-distance traveling and can be detached from the whole - for these are the local city trains or the metros, and the kinds of plots that unfurl within them are necessarily different from the ones that take place in languid, long-distance travel. The time that passengers get to spend together per journey is limited, but it is possible to meet every day, and for a romance to unfurl slowly: thus the burgeoning of the relationship between working-class boy Tony (Amol Palekar) and the sweet Nancy (Tina Munim), chaperoned by her uncle, takes place on a Bandra-Churchgate route in Baaton Baaton Mein, as they move from passing notes to direct conversation.
There are opportunities, but there are threats too, as we are reminded in A Wednesday, which depicts the frustrations of the train-travelling common man in a world afflicted by terrorist strikes, and in Kahaani, which begins with a scene showing a chemical attack on a metro – and later has a scene where the film’s protagonist almost finds herself hurled before an oncoming train. This is why the staff of our Matinee Express is so meticulous about their security checks. Kindly excuse the inconvenience.
One man who moves freely from one coach to the next is a ticket-collector named Sanjay (M K Raina), from the low-key 1973 film 27 Down, and watching him is a reminder that so few of our movies have had interesting protagonists who work in the railways. (Need one mention the Bachchan-starrer Coolie here?) Sanjay is the quiet, subdued type, but there’s a lot going on inside his head. He didn’t want this job – he had to give up his art studies because of his railway-employee father’s insistence – and now he feels like he has spent his life crossing bridges without really getting anywhere; he lives, literally and figuratively, on the tracks, and measures his life in train sounds and distances. In fact, the first words we hear in the film are his subconscious musings: “Phir koi pull hai kya? Shaayad pull hee hai” (Has another bridge come? Seems like it).
If this hard-working young man were to take a cigarette break by going to the very end of the train and standing outside the last bogie, he might see that the stones on the track are forming words! Unfolding here is the inventive opening-credits sequence of Vijay Anand’s Chhupa Rustam where the names of the cast and crew members are spelt out in white chalk on the pebbles that litter the rail tracks.
It's a very odd sight, but we should be used to that by now. The fact that our train has enough space in it for both the melancholy ticket-collector and for the boisterous hero dancing to “Chhaiya Chhaiya” – along with so many others in between – is a reminder of the variety in both cinema and in rail travel. And so, while the Matinee Express continues on its merry way – picking up and dropping off more passengers along its endless line – I’ll give the last word to that very unlikely rap star, Jogi Thakur (Ashok Kumar), from the 1968 film Aashirwad.