Romancing the train

Whether it’s love stories, action thrillers or murder mysteries, the railway continues to be the right way for many a filmmaker, writes Vikramdeep Johal

Films are smoother than life. They glide on like trains in the night...
— from Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night

A chance meeting between two strangers. It’s hate at first sight which gradually turns into friendship and eventually love. Jab We Met revolves around the lead pair of Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor, but no less important is the "character" which brings them together — the train. No wonder director Imtiaz Ali has called his film an advertisement for the "Great Indian Railways".

Since the dawn of cinema, this mode of public transport has fascinated filmmakers the world over. In popularity, it has always been way ahead of the bus, the plane and the ship. Anything can happen on a reel train — romance, sex, suicide, murder, robbery, kidnapping, hijacking, sabotage and what not. Contrasting fates are in store for various passengers: for some, the journey marks a new beginning or an escape from a nightmarish world; for others, it brings separation, exile or even death.

In this jet-set-go age, movie stars might be shuttling between cities and countries by air, but on-screen the good old railgaadi is still chugging along merrily. This year’s Emraan Hashmi flick The Train was a straight lift from the Clive Owen thriller Derailed. American director Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited is the story of the three Whitman brothers, who try in vain to settle their differences while travelling across India on the eponymous train.

Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor in Jab We Met; Burt Lancaster in the World War II action flick The Train; Mehboob’s Deccan Queen was one of the first train-centric Hindi movies
Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor in Jab We Met; Burt Lancaster in the World War II action flick The Train; Mehboob’s Deccan Queen was one of the first train-centric Hindi movies

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When did this reel-rail affair begin? Flashback to 1903 — Edwin S. Porter made the The Great Train Robbery, which created a blueprint for railroad action scenes. Since then, train robberies have been a staple ingredient of Westerns, most memorably Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Michael Crichton paid a tribute to Porter’s pioneering movie by giving its name to his own 1979 entertainer.

In Hindi cinema, the wheels were set rolling in the 1930s by Toofan Mail, Deccan Queen and Miss Frontier Mail. The latter showcased Fearless Nadia as the daredevil heroine who wowed audiences by fighting the baddies on the roof of a high-speed train.

Ideal platform

Before he entered films, "Master of Suspense" Alfred Hitchcock was so hooked on rail timetables that he used to learn them by heart. That partly explains why there are compartment scenes in several of his works, including The 39 Steps (1935), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest (1959). His espionage spoof The Lady Vanishes (1938) was almost entirely set on a trans-European train.

Hitchcock made brilliant use of the train’s confined space, frenetic pace and repetitive sounds to intensify the air of intrigue, striking a fine balance between suspense and humour.

David Lean was another master who loved trains. The Milford Junction Station was the rendezvous for lovers Alec and Laura, both unhappily married, in Brief Encounter (1945). On an epic scale, there was the explosive wreck in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and the grand exodus in Dr Zhivago (1965).

Central station

Though trains have made guest appearances in countless movies worldwide, they have sometimes been given longer and meatier "roles". In Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), residents of a village ran their beloved local locomotive themselves in protest against the government’s decision to replace it with a bus service. The Train (1964) saluted the heroism of French resistance fighters who managed to stop a German officer from taking away a trainload of art treasures during WWII. The star-studded Murder on the Orient Express (1974), based on Agatha Christie’s bestseller, saw Hercule Poirot solving a complex whodunnit.

Bollywood Express

The rail almost became a living entity in Ravi Chopra’s The Burning Train (1980), which was a cross between two Hollywood disaster movies — The Cassandra Crossing and The Towering Inferno. Despite a mega star cast, well-executed stunts and catchy songs, it ran out of steam at the box-office.

The award for the most action-packed train scene in Hindi films should go to Sholay, in which Jai and Veeru "double-handedly" kept dacoits at bay and took the train out of harm’s way. In Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja and Dhoom:2, high-profile robbers Anil Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan took their time doing acrobatics before fleeing with the precious stuff.

In romantic dramas, the train has played Cupid on many occasions. In Pakeezah, Raaj Kumar, smitten by Meena Kumari, left a note in her compartment with that unforgettable line, "Aapke paon dekhe, bahut haseen hai. Inhe zameen par mat utariyega — maile ho jayenge ". It was the all-too-familiar boy-meets-girl-on-a-train scenario in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.

The humble railway porter was played not-so-humbly by Big B in Coolie (1983), while Nanda was surprisingly cast as a conwoman who robs passengers in The Train (1970).

Historical track

The train has figured prominently in two of the most catastrophic events of the 20th century — the Holocaust and the Partition. There are heart-rending images of Jewish passengers on their last journey in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and Alain Resnais’ 1955 documentary Night and Fog (In the 1998 French farce Train of Life, inhabitants of a Jewish village tried to befool the Nazis by staging their own deportation to Russia!).

Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan (1997) and Deepa Mehta’s 1947: Earth (1999) showed how the sight of blood-spattered coaches turned ordinary people into murderers. Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) climaxed in an improbable scene in which Sunny Deol alone took on the Pakistan army.

There seems to be no end to this cinematic rail journey. That’s hardly surprising, for the train still has an old-world charm captivating enough to withstand the relentless march of technology. Like diamonds, trains are forever.

Bogie woogie

Train songs in Hindi movies have often been of the romantic kind, while a few have been filmed in other situations as well. Here are some of the best.

  • Mere sapnon ki rani (Aradhana): Rajesh Khanna in a jeep serenades Sharmila Tagore on a train. A rhythmic gem by the great SD Burman, with Kishore Kumar at his exuberant best. Thirty-six years later, Sharmila’s son Saif Ali Khan boarded the same train in the Kasto maza hai railaima song (Parineeta), sung by Sonu Nigam.

  • Hai apna dil to awara (Solva Saal): Hemant Kumar lent his golden voice to this one, which was picturised on Dev Anand.

  • Pal do pal ka saath hamara (The Burning Train): A superb qawwali by Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhosle. With a bomb planted aboard, the lyrics beautifully convey the transience of life.

  • Chal chhaiyya chhaiyya (Dil Se): Shah Rukh Khan and Malaika Arora Khan sizzle on the train top in this foot-tapping, one-of-a-kind track from the Sukhwinder-AR Rahman duo.

  • Railgaadi (Aashirwad): Ashok Kumar himself sang this unique "non-stop" number in which he virtually became a human train. Deservingly, the thespian won the Filmfare Award and National Award for best actor.

  • Gaadi bula rahi hai (Dost): Kishore at it again. An inspiring song in which the train is depicted as a metaphor for life itself.