The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 16, 2002

The role of rail in reel life
A.C. Tuli

Trains have served as a backdrop for tragic or romantic scenes in Hindi films
Trains have served as a backdrop for tragic or romantic scenes in Hindi films

AS Indian Railways marks 150 years of existence, it is but natural to take a journey down memory lane and relive Indian cinema’s affair with trains. In fact, right from the advent of the talkies in India, there have been very few Hindi films, barring mythologicals, in which a train has not figured, even if for a few seconds. Trains in reel life have enjoyed almost the same importance that they do in real life.

Let us go back to the distant past when trains began to be a part of our films. In Bombay Talkies’ film Achchut Kanya (1936), starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani, the train is assigned a tragic role. It becomes the agent of death. The star-crossed lovers of this film cannot marry because the boy belongs to a high caste and the girl comes from a low caste. The village elders, with their fossilised outlook on life, are deadly against the love affair of these two innocent souls. The film ends on a tragic note when the girl throws herself before a running train to end her life.

A train is not just a means of travelling from one place to another. Its movement also has a metaphorical sweep that covers a whole gamut of human emotions and sentiments. In the 1942 film Jawab, which had singer-actress Kanan Devi in the lead, not only does a train appear on the screen a good many times but a melodious song was also woven around it. This song was sung by Kanan Devi and also picturised on her. And what a song! Duniya yeh duniya toofan mail,/ Is ke pahiye zor se chalte aur apna rasta teh karte,/ sayane is se kaam nikalen bachche samjhe khel...’ The musical interludes in this song very realistically imitate the sound of a moving train. Such indeed was the popularity of this song that in many documentary films made on Indian Railways, this song was used as the signature tune.


A moving train can also forebode a tragedy. The rattling of the wheels, the swaying of the carriages, the noise as the train negotiates a criss-cross of lines while storming past a station where it does not stop, and the stoking of the furnace of the engine by the driver with a shovelful of coal — all these can be a premonition of something tragic to come.

In Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), the scenes in which the hero is shown travelling aimlessly to different parts of the country by train have been superbly picturised. They leave an indelible impression on the viewers’ minds. Those who have seen Devdas must remember these scenes. The train tearing through the darkness of the night, the jolting and swaying of the coaches, the engine driver throwing a shovelful of coal into the furnace as Devdas, already near death’s door because of excessive drinking, is shown tossing in a peg, of liquor. In short, the train journey of the benighted hero in Roy’s Devdas heightens the effect of the ultimate tragedy.

But trains are not merely a symbol of tragedy in Hindi cinema and are also associated with romance. In many a film, the train is shown as a venue for the hilarious boy-meets-girl situation.

What is the best way that a lover can choose to serenade his lady love? Hindi films have used many devices. But there was one scene that gained immense popularity in the 60s and 70s was like this. A railway line and a road run parallel. The hero is driving along the road in an open jeep. The heroine, sitting in the window seat of a train, is shown going in the same direction. This sequence was popularised in Aradhana (1969), where Rajesh Khanna sings ‘Mere sapno ki rani kab aaye gee tu’.

Then, there are films whose storyline revolves round a railway train itself. B.R. Chopra’s The Burning Train is a case in point. The plot of the story unfolds as the train roars along to its destination. In the climax scenes, the train turns into an inferno. Another film that B.R. Chopra made with a train as the backdrop of the story was The Train. It was a mystery thriller and most of the action scenes in the film take place on a moving train.

Interestingly, some of our most popular film songs have been picturised on characters travelling on a train. In Jagriti (1955), a school teacher is taking his students on an extensive tour of India to show them important historical places. The teacher sings, ‘Aao bachcho tumeh dikhayen jhanki Hindustan ki, is mitti se tilak karo yeh dharti hai balidan ki, vande matram...’ Another popular film song picturised on the hero and the heroine in a moving train is from the film Waris (1954). It was sung by Talat Mahmood and Suraiya. The song, ‘Rahi matwale tu ched ik baar man ka sitar...’ was beautifully set to music by Anil Biswas.

In Ashirwad, the late Ashok Kumar very successfully imitated the sounds produced by a moving train through a song that he sang himself. The song, ‘Rail gadi, rail gadi...’ was so charmingly sung by Ashok Da that it is difficult to imagine any other singer doing the same justice to it.

The most expensively shot popular train song in recent years was, of course, the one in Dil Se: ‘Chal chhayyan, chhayyan chhayyan...’ Picturised on hundreds of boys and girls singing and dancing rapturously on the roof of a moving train, this song became a craze with music buffs. But this good song, alas, was bad in law. Indian Railways’ bylaws forbid travelling, let alone singing and dancing, on the roof of a train.

Shall railway trains retain their pride of place in our films in the years to come? Maybe not. Technological progress and growing level of prosperity is ushering in many changes in our lifestyle. The present-day heroes and heroines are more used to travelling by aeroplanes than by trains. So the train scenes in our films are now fewer than before. But it is difficult to think of a time in the future when trains will completely cease to figure in our films.

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