Films & Partition
train of History

In Hindi films railways helped to showcase historical events. They often became metaphors
of a journey, both internal and external, writes
Prabhjot Parmar

Gadar, one of the recent movies depicting the trauma of Partition, struck a chord in people‘s hearts
Gadar, one of the recent movies depicting the trauma of Partition, struck a chord in people‘s hearts

In Bollywood cinema, railways are an integral part of the film landscape, and frequently of the film plot. Be it a moving train, a bogie, diesel, electric or the good old steam engine, or the railway yard, platform or the station from outside on the streets, coolies, vendors, and so on, all find exposure on the film screen. The plots and uses are multiple as the railways occupy a memorable niche in Bollywood films: symbols of the journey of life of simply evocations of everyday life; a shared space of communal harmony and national integration; a good location for a fight sequence; source of income for singers, vendors and coolie; a site for developing romance to list but a few. Some of the famous romantic songs are set in trains; on the other hand, trains also are sites of popular moral and philosophical film songs. The Train, The Burning Train and 27 Down are obvious examples of the centrality of railways in Bollywood films. Meetings and separations in trains or on railway platforms serve as a key moment in the stories of innumerable films, thus underscoring the presence of the railways in Bollywood cinema. Various representations of railways generate different emotions: laughter, grief, joy, exhilaration, suspense and trepidation. However, none is as distressing and painful as the portrayal of trains in films on the Partition, in which railways acquire the saddest, most poignant, and the bloodiest representation.

One of the most famous images of the communal conflict of 1947
One of the most famous images of the communal conflict of 1947

Among films set in East and West Punjab during the Partition, that examine the representations of railways are Chhalia (1960), Gadar Ek Prem Katha, Train to Pakistan (1997) and 1947 Earth (1999). Trains became contested sites where existing and new identities were negotiated, and where nationalism supplanted local identities and regional politics.

The number of people killed in trains was far less than those killed on ground, but the manner in which train killings were executed are shocking examples of genocide and are "the most famous images of the communal holocaust of 1947".

The ambushes and killings in trains and at various railway stations in Punjab make the communal massacres difficult to forget or ignore. No image of Partition, textual or in the mind’s eye, photograph or film, escapes from the overloaded trains with men, women and children moving from one side of the border to the other.

The prevalence of insaniyat over the beastliness during Partition is evident in Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan, which is a faithful filmic representation of Khushwant Singh’s novel of the same name. This film provides a picture of Mano Majra, a village in Indian Punjab, close to the newly formed border, in which trains play a vital part in the everyday life of the villagers, and subsequently, trains become the cause of turbulence in an otherwise calm and peaceful village. It is where trainloads of dead refugees arrive; the iron railway bridge on a nearby river is the site of the climactic action. Shortly after the film begins, several brief shots depict the consistent presence of railways in Mano Majra.

Trains overloaded with refugees from either side of the border are an integral part of any narrative on the Partition
Trains overloaded with refugees from either side of the border are an integral part of any narrative on the Partition

Train to Pakistan presents the story of Jugga (Nirmal Pandey), a dacoit. He is in love with Nooran (Smriti Mishra) and is having an affair with her right under the nose of her almost blind father. One day a rival dacoit gang kills the village moneylender and the police imprisons Jugga instead. In his jail cell, Jugga meets Iqbal, a communist worker, who is also in jail because of the moneylender’s murder. While Jugga is in jail, Mano Majra begins to feel the impact of the Partition. Tensions rise as trainloads of dead bodies keep arriving from Pakistan. Because riots break out elsewhere, here too the ripples of destruction reach. All villagers, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus live in a close-knit harmony.

As the story progresses, the nervousness related to the Partition and refugees and massacres begin to creep into Mano Majra. Their chief point of entry is the railways, either the station or the railway lines in the wilderness. The first train scene begins with a close up of a steam engine that stops at a small railway station and a man (Iqbal) disembarks. There are several policemen on the platform, including Thanedar Sahib, the inspector (Mangal Dhillon). Walking up to the stationmaster, Iqbal shows his ticket upon exit and enquires about a place to stay in the village. A routine scenario on a railway station subsequently is followed by a shot of a crowded train carrying passengers shouting slogans, "Long Live India. This is our India. India is ours". In the foreground, the stationmaster stands with his back to the camera, which first is looking to the right to capture the incoming train and gradually moves to the left as the train passes the station. It passes through Mano Majra without stopping, making the train a mobile device of nationalism that claims the regional as the national territory with slogan shouting.

Excerpted from”Trains of Death: Representations of the Railways in films on the Partition by Prabhjot Parmar from 27 Down New Departures in Indian Railway studies. Ed. Ian.J. Kerr. Orient Longman
Excerpted from”Trains of Death: Representations of the Railways in films on the Partition by Prabhjot Parmar from 27 Down New Departures in Indian Railway studies. Ed. Ian.J. Kerr. Orient Longman

In an ominous sequence shortly thereafter, a train halts at the station early in the morning. Again, the back of the stationmaster is in the foreground. The engine driver is the only person who gets off. In this shot, wrapped in the steam of the engine the driver silently looks with weary eyes at the stationmaster. In the next shot, the magistrate arrives at the railway station. the inspector is there to receive him but there is no verbal exchange, they only share glances full of heavy seriousness. As they walk into the station, both are framed within the entrance at the end of which a train is visible. Along with the police inspector, the magistrate boards the train for an inspection. The sound of buzzing flies conveys the stench of death before the camera moves and the officials gaze over the compartment that is full of butchered bodies. It is evident that several trains full of corpses arrives at Mano Majra and under the military command, mass funeral pyres are prepared outside the village. A few scenes later, as the villagers gather to see a large number of dead bodies floating in the river, another train comes from the direction of Pakistan. It does not blow its whistle nor is its light on. One of the villagers appropriately calls it "a Ghost Train" because dark, quiet and dangerous it moves towards Mano Majra. The final railway scene of Train to Pakistan comes during the climax as the steam engine takes a train full of Muslim refugees towards Pakistan. It crosses the iron bridge safely and an aerial shot shows the train chugging through widerness towards its destination.

The British, as well as the Congress and Muslim League did not anticipate the degree of communal violence and migration that would accompany the division of Indian Empire. There were no preparations to maintain social order in case of communal violence. As Train to Pakistan demonstrates, previously thriving communally harmonious rural areas were overwhelmed by the impact of the events occurring elsewhere. Mano Majra best exemplifies how the local identities are transformed and shaped anew by national politics and in so doing, create divisions amongst the inhabitants of the same village. Although the harmony among the residents of Mano Majra remains, men like Malli and his goons act as disrupters and as the representatives of the newly acquired national identity. They loot and kill because it is their profession as dacoits; however, there is an added fervour in the name of religion and nation in their acts. In contrast, Jugga, also a dacoit, maintaining allegiance to his fellow Muslim villagers, sacrifices himself in order to ensure their safe passage across the border by train. He climbs on the railway bridge and cuts off a large rope tied across to kill the refugees sitting on the rooftop of the train. While he is cutting the rope, Malli and his men spot him and shoot him. Jugga, tenaciously hangs on to the bridge and falls down after he successfully foils Malli’s plan.

In Earth, the train episode acts a catalytic mise-en-scene. The train of death in Earth apparently arrives on 15 August. In the first shot of the railway station, Mehta’s camera provides a close up of white fluttering pigeons, then it moves upwards to pan out to show Dil Navaz waiting amongst a large crowd on the platform. apparently, it is a small station in or on the outskirts of Lahore. The restless white pigeons serve as a metaphor to exteriorise what Dil Navaz and other people on the platform are feeling inside while waiting for a train that is already twelve hours late. The railway station sequence is accompanied by a song in the background whose lyrics serve as a textual-musical parallel to reveal not only the emotions of people but also act as a portend. In the entire scene, the focus rarely shifts from Dil Navaz. The camera zooms in to capture and reflect his tension: he continually wipes sweat from his face and neck and looks anxiously towards the direction from which the train is supposed to come. If the camera does not centre on him, it is through his gaze that we look at what transpires at the railway station.

From a close up of Dil Navaz, the camera, in a long overhead shot shows a train quietly slithering into the station and immediately cuts to a close up shot of a surprisingly subdued steam engine. The darkness of the night, the summer heat, and the steam emitted by the engine and the song playing in the background, all work in ominous conjunction to convey the discovery of the butchered passengers in the train. A scream and wailing cries of Ya Allah shatter the unbearable tension on the railway platform as Dil Navaz, framed in the bogie door puts his hand on the floor of the compartment to find his fingers dripping with blood. Tears hovering in his eyes, he looks at the berths and seats full of butchered bodies, from some blood is still dripping down in trickles. The foregrounding of the sound of buzzing flies on the dead bodies with the sombre background music makes the massacre even more ghastly.

The whole entity of railways — trains, platform, the overpasses between platforms, lines, railway yards — are depicted in Gadar as theatres of war, as sites of killing and rape. This spontaneous, compulsive violence demonstrates how on both sides of the border such retaliatory acts were carried out in the name of relatives, religion and nation. Suddenly the cohesive group begins to reflect the religious and political divisions of the society: Muslims versus Sikhs and Hindus, and Muslim League versus Akalis and Congress respectively. Tara Singh embodies the victim-aggressor here. Interestingly, as he is about to kill a woman in a crowd of people, he stops midway, realising that it is someone that he recognises. It is Sakina (Ameesha Patel), whom Tara has loved for some years. The moment freezes, and suddenly the energy of the violent mob pushes Tara and he loses Sakina in the crowd. This moment ends Tara’s murderous rage and instead he starts searching for Sakina in the chaos on the railway station. Tara saves Sakina whose parents apparently are killed in the refugee train. Tara brings her to his house, and after some time they marry.

Whereas Earth exhibits the end results of brutality in trains without showing the acts of violence, Gadar, on the other hand, graphically portrays how passenger trains become trains of death; how railway platforms transmute into battlefields strewn with dead bodies. Unlike Dil Navaz in Earth, Tara Singh in Gadar instantly resorts to spontaneous violence when he sees the butchered bodies of his parents and sisters. If in Earth, the train comes from Gurdaspur, India, conversely, in Gadar, the train arrives from Pakistan. Nevertheless, the outcome is the same: bogies filled with butchered and mutilated bodies. In Lahore of Earth, tensions build up with a fresh outbreak of violence in the city after the train of death arrives, similarly, in Gadar, on the railway platform in Amritsar, retaliatory slaughter and butchery envelop a large number of Muslim refugees waiting to leave for Pakistan because a trainload of corpses arrives from Pakistan.

Gadar, a retread of the Punjabi film Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Buta Singh, is inferior to its inspiration. Attendant to the division and In the scene, shot on a refugee-crowded railway yard and rail lines, as a Sikh, Tara is able to assert his authority to save Sakina from the bloodthirsty group of men. In a dramatic manner, he puts his blood on Sakina’s forehead and declares her a Sikhni.

Trains and railway stations were the quintessential embodiments of the socio-economic schematisation where first, second and third class recreated the socio-economic hierarchy within the railway bogies and the station waiting rooms. However, amidst the sectarian violence and the frenzied rush to escape slaughter, people from all sections of society travelled by trains with little regard for class and caste- based distinctions. The overcrowded trains with people hanging out or sitting on the roofs, as shown in Gadar and other films, were not a result of organised placement of people in and on top of the trains.Whereas the opening scenes of the film establish trains as the sites of tragic massacres of innocent refugees, the long sequence of escape via a goods’ train at the end becomes a competition between the representatives of the two countries: who can outsmart the other to escape, or conversely, to capture?

Gadar, it must be kept in mind, was released in the summer of 2001, two years after the Kargil War (1999) between India and Pakistan. Overemphasis on the Indo-Pak opposition, in order to appeal to the contemporary film audience for box-office success, obscured the communal violence of the Partition detailed earlier in the film and diluted the message of harmony.

The extended and contrived escape scene loses contact with the film’s central theme. It shifts the focus from the family reunion of Tara and Sakina to a dual competition between India-Pakistan, Sikh-Muslim. Although Tara Singh is a Sikh he becomes the representative of the Indian nation. As a Sikh, he is fighting against a Muslim (Ashraf Ali) and a Muslim nation (Pakistan) to gain back his wife. Tara Singh becomes a conflated symbol of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, a personification of secular India against Muslim Pakistan. To this end, and in spite of its tedious length, the train escape sequence gains significance. Visually, there are several aerial shots of the goods train cutting across the Pakistani territory towards India. Such shots also provide a visual divide between the two countries. The railway track acts as a visual border between two pieces of land, thus unintentionally evoking the theme of Partition.