The rails in India’s reels

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What is India without her railways? And what is India without her cinema? And the twain do meet often. Railways have sometimes been central to the plot, sometimes a supporting actor and sometimes just an extra in Indian cinema, but some role it does play, and often. Akul Tripathi writes about this pair and the relationship they share, which has so fascinated Indians for more than a century now.

They are two quite seemingly unrelated things – movies and trains. Perhaps the only thing that could possibly be seen as common ground between the two is that they revolutionised the world in ways none quite expected them to. One transformed India and steadily made the vast expanse seem less intimidating, while the other became that rare opium shared and enjoyed equally by both the masses and the classes.

The first railways under the grand Great Indian Peninsula Railway opened in 1853 running between Bombay and Thane. In the subsequent years, the hurtling metal boxes changed the geography of the country. Forty two years later, the Lumiere Brothers brought the magic of moving pictures to the country and since then, nothing has been the way it was.

An early affair

Quite aptly, one of the earliest “movies” to be screened was a 50-second continuous shot of a train pulling into a station: the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, made in 1895. In the decades and century to follow, cinema and trains have shared a relationship that is steadfast as it is unique. People thronged to big cities on the backs of these locomotives to watch the cinema, which in turn made sure that the romance of a country at move stayed alive and fresh on the silver screen.

If it weren’t for the trains in the movies, Raj from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge would never have met Simran, nor would national integration have played out as sublimely as it did in The Burning Train. And of course, if there ever was something to beat the experience of a cinema hall, it has to be the landscape unfolding in the epic old-fashioned 70mm screen of a train window.

If it weren’t for the trains in the movies, Raj from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge would never have met Simran, nor would national integration have played out as sublimely as it did in The Burning Train. And of course, if there ever was something to beat the experience of a cinema hall, it has to be the landscape unfolding in the epic old-fashioned 70mm screen of a train window.

It’s an unfortunate reality that Indian cinema has lost a vast majority of the films made in the initial eras of cinema. One of the earliest prominent references of trains used in popular cinema is the 1934 movie Toofan Mail which must have been popular and successful enough to warrant a sequel – Return of Toofan Mail in 1942. In the years to follow, the train finds reference and often prominence in Indian cinema. Quite unmistakably, it is an iconographic aspect of Indian cinema that has been consistent since, what many argue, has been the urbanisation of Indian society.

The ubiquitous coming of age

The wheels of the train are the hands of time in whose movement the unassuming and in distress young boy, grows up to be the hero that the silver screen demanded of him. One loses count of the number of times that a boy jumps over a bridge onto a running train, and by the time the feet hit the top of the compartment, he is the grown superstar. What can be a better example of this device that the 1973 movie Yaadon Ki Baaraat, where in the space of a 360 degree camera movement a young boy transforms into the charming Dharmendra. In another avataar, it is the potent symbol of moving forward in life – which so perfectly captures India where the migration of people from villages to cities is a reality and coming of age, with the train as its medium. In real and reel life, many a superstar arrived to keep their appointment with destiny at the Victoria Terminus of Bombay. The arriving train a harbinger of hope for those waiting; the one running along its merry course the process of a journey being lived, of destinations being reached and of course the train pulling out of the station and receding into the distance, the most potent symbol of loss and separation.

Whether it is the young Shambhu from the 1953 classic Do Bigha Zamin on his way to the big city to earn money to pay off a debt; or the poignant moment as the train pulls into the deserted Ramgarh station in the iconic Sholay, are pieces of cinema lore that cling to the memory for a life time. What better a movie and scenes from it to depict the length and breadth of the country and its many peoples than the inimitable Gandhi where sitting on top of a steam locomotive, the young Gandhi fresh from the South African triumph meets the real India? The train as the setting for the mode of travel and place where you meet the common man hasn’t changed since with recent movies like the 2004 Shah Rukh Khan movie Swades, where from a train, an NRI opens his eyes to discover India for the first time.

And leaving all meaningful metaphors aside, there has never been a more effervescent setting for a song than these iron clad crawlers with a heart as good as any Cupid. The rambunctious Chaiya Chaiya from Dil Se in 1998 redefined what a train could do to a song or a song for a train just as the Mere Sapnon Ki Rani cleverly shot duet with Rajesh Khanna in a jeep driving alongside Sharmila Tagore seated in a train, had established this fable so convincingly in 1969. It is quite fitting that it was a song shot on a train that conveys the very soul of the train so melodiously in the 1974 film Dost where Dharmendra sees life as one long train journey as he hums Chalna Hi Zindagi Hai, Chalti Hi Ja Rahi Hai.

The trains in reel and real have seen the entire gamut of Indian life and the things that make it meaningful for all its billion-plus inhabitants. It has been the garden where the guy first sees the girl, the fantasy land where he romances her (Solva Saal – Hai Apna Dil Toh Aawara), the precious gift that is the envy of dacoits, the holy ground worth fighting for and perhaps most magnificently, the universal representation for life’s missed opportunities – Rajesh Khanna realising that Zindagi Ke Safar Mein Guzar Jaate Hain Jo Makaam, Woh Phir Nahin Aate and the more recent allegory from Jab We Met, where Kareena Kapoor’s intuition warning her of impending wrong outcomes was compared to the growing realisation that one may miss a train.

It is, when one thinks of it carefully, quite natural that film and rail share such an intimate bond. Both have a significant common ground on which they unite the country. Neither cares nor stoops to distinguish caste, creed, race or religion. All of us equal before the God in Heaven. A feeling so rare, it is rapture. As is travelling by train and being lost in the darkness of the movie hall. To both these centenarians poised to see time beyond all our years: Live long and live well!


Akul-Tripathi

Akul Tripathi

The writer is a media professional and freelance writer.

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