GAMAK GHAR (Dir. Achal Mishra, 2019, India)


Director Achal Mishra’s impressive debut film is a semi-formalist work, resorting to a succession of absorbing vignettes and framed as tableau in which the historical spatial and temporal configurations of an ancestral family house acts as more than just a pivot, fashioning a sense of the ephemeral and conjuring a steady yet absorbing rhythm. Choosing to use three different aspect ratios may appear gimmicky at first but the logic of this stylistic decision works to signify the transition from one generation to the next. More importantly, the use of three ratios sustains the creation of tonal shifts. For instance, the opening section of the film which Mishra films in the 4:3 aspect ratio conjures a nostalgia through the skilfully colour grading that has a technicolour feel invoking the 1970s and 80s. In terms of filmic influences, the opening shot of a large tree framed against blue skies and meandering path invokes the pastoral landscapes of Ghatak’s films notably Meghe Dhaka Tara. The opening segues into an extended sequence that surveys the rhythms, intricacies and intimacies of a family in the magical glow of life as it is, which largely becomes a signature. Notable is Mishra’s restrained and resolutely observational camera style, framing many of the characters actions through doorways and windows of the family house. The personification of the family house, a conceptual choice, juxtaposed to temporal jumps in the narrative projects the spaces as sacred, sentimental and eventually spectral. A gradual neglect of the home coming to suggest an indisputable sadness is rectified in the ending that points to the ways in which renewal and change are all part of an inevitable historical process.

AAKROSH / Cry of the Wounded [Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1980, India] – ‘I burn from within…’


In the dialogue-less opening to Aakrosh, Bhiku (Om Puri), the Adivasi labourer looks on in chains as the body of his dead wife (Smita Patil in a cameo) is cremated before he is led away by the police to jail. The pot marked face, protruding eyes, leathery skin of Bhiku amount to an image of the lower caste worker as a subjugated, exhausted figure which typified the alternative representations of the subaltern that became associated with Parallel Cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. Bhiku’s interminable silence, arguably contradicting the attempts to articulate the subaltern as more authentic and visible, is used as a broader political metaphor anchored in the opening lyrics: ‘I am unable to endure the pain anymore…I burn from within’. Bhiku is charged with strangling his wife to death and defended by Bhaskar, an idealistic lawyer played deftly by Naseeruddin Shah. Bhaskar soon discovers that Bhiku’s case is more complex than he imagines, concealing a caste led conspiracy in which four upper caste men have raped and murdered Bhiku’s wife. Although director Govind Nihalani weaves together an effective thriller, grasping the nuances of genre, the tone of political outrage, much of which is exemplified in Bhaskar’s anger and paranoia, transforms the work into a somewhat didactic yet measured study of caste, middle class hypocrisy (a theme Nihalani returned to with great satirical accomplishment in Party) and power.

The caste politics are complicated by public prosecutor Dushane (Amrish Puri in fine form), a lower caste lawyer who is resigned to masking over his caste identity so to protect the very totalizing system into which he has been readily assimilated. Dushane is a self-hating figure, labelling Bhiku a savage tribesman who drinks alcohol and creates mayhem. However, Dushane is troubled by hostile late night phone calls that remind him of his lower caste status, tearing down the illusion of social mobility. At one point Dushane mocks Bhaskar for his apprehension, arguing the only reason Bhaskar doesn’t want to defend Bhiku is because a Brahmin sending an Adivasi tribesman to his death doesn’t look very good in today’s changing society. Having broken through the system, Dushane refuses to take up a revolutionary position, showing disdain for his fellow caste oppressed brothers like Bhiku, and choosing to endorse a corrupt, discriminatory system that continues to deny him a true sense of belonging. Dushane serves the law, nothing more. Whereas Bhaskar argues a wider ethical responsibility should take equal precedent. The machinations of a system aligned to protect the few, the privileged and upper caste is another aspect of society that writer Vijay Tendulkar delineates, conveying the ways in which the intricate cogs of an unjust system mesh together and are manifested in acts of state sanctioned violence.

If Dushane compels Bhiku to conform and serve nothing but the law, the activist and social worker working with the Adivasi in the village, is an obvious political metonym for Naxalism. The activist wants to help Bhaskar who is frustrated by his concerted attempts, all of them in vain, to gain the consensual support of Bhiku’s father and sister. In perhaps one of the most overtly didactic moments in the film, the activist, speaking like a true Naxal, tells Bhaskar the Adivasi do not need his sympathy nor pity; for anything to change there needs to be a complete uprooting of the system, the annihilation of the present, a revolutionary ideal which the middle class have kept at bay through their faux sympathies. But as we witness, any challenges or opposition to the system are swiftly snuffed out with a resounding legitimacy and contravention of the law. The attack on Bhaskar by goons working for the ruling elite is the logical conclusion of a lawlessness that permeates a claustrophobic milieu in which the Adivasi remain mute in fear of reprisals and sanctions, be it economic or social.

Where Aakrosh falters is in the abrupt ending. Having tried unsuccessfully to defend Bhiku, Bhaskar and Dushane have a final confrontation. In some respects, when Bhiku takes the life of his sister, hacking her to death at the funeral of his father, that is when the film should have finished; a bleak ending but one deserving of a such a cruel system. Instead, the exchange between Bhaskar and Dushane strives to privilege the worth of Brahmin intervention, thereby undermining the caste agenda, reducing subaltern agency to something insubstantial and underdeveloped. Dushane wants to protect the position of power he has carved out but it comes at the expense of closing the door behind him, leaving a lower caste status in the past as though it never existed. The ending implies the Brahminical saviour seems to be the only one who is incorruptible while it could be argued that Bikhu’s silence ultimately rings hollow, suppressing the momentum of political angst.

Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Conclusion: New Filmic Spaces

Related image

This series has tried to examine the role of the train as an iconographic component in the lexicon of Indian cinema, pausing to analyse sequences to detail the aesthetic and thematic significance of the train. Hutchings (1995: 69) argues ‘a film genre’s outer form was its iconography and its inner form its thematic identity’. If we interpret thematic identity as ideology and having surveyed the visual image of the train through Indian cinema, one of the first conclusions we can draw is that both the outer and inner form are in a constant dialogue with each other and it is impossible to separate them; iconography informs ideology and vice versa. Furthermore, the recurrence of the train through so many genres and cinemas does so in accordance with other readily identifiable visual elements (song and dance) offering an iconographic unity to the aesthetic structure of Indian films.

This shared visual grammar amongst Indian film directors and unspoken iconographic understanding challenges yet again the totality of auteurism. Still, it could be argued that since the train has never been specific to any single genre in Indian cinema, ‘the emergence of genre cinema’ (Vasudevan, 2011: 387) in recent years has inevitably meant the train as an iconographic component inherent to Indian narrative cinema could eventually disappear. Vasudevan (2011: 387) uses the example of director Ram Gopal Varma as epitomising this new genre sensibility, ‘reproducing a Hollywood standard of narrative integration, character-driven, and point of view storytelling’. Varma has worked in both the horror and gangster film genres with a Hollywood like approach to narrative and thematic choices.

Another decidedly patent discovery is the way the train has evolved over time as a narrative, thematic and ideological element ‘marked fundamentally by difference, variation and change’ (Neale, 1990: 56), representative of the way film genres function, extending the repertoire ‘by adding a new element or by transgressing one of the old ones’ (Neale, 1990: 56). Creative modernism has been key to the constancy of the train in Indian cinema. Filmmakers have always sought out new ways of visualising the train, thus feeding into what Steve Neale (1990: 46) calls ‘systems of expectation and hypothesis which spectators bring with them to the cinema’. Neale’s argument on the expectations engendered by film genres is an important one and although this series has not afforded me the opportunity to consider the role of the audience in relation to the train my final point towards the end of this conclusion will briefly outline potential audience research that could be undertaken to develop this study further.

I want to conclude, considering rapid transport in India, focusing on the Delhi Metro, which has the potential to challenge the train as a new site of urban ideological exchange for Indian cinema. The Delhi Metro began operating in 2002, offering Delhi a contemporary urban identity and Indian cinema a fresh new filmic space. The Delhi Metro has featured in a number of mainstream Hindi films including Paa (Father, 2009), Love Aaj Kal (Love Nowadays, 2009), Dev D (2009) and Delhi 6 (2009). In the cultural geography of spaces and places (see: Marc Auge, 1995) the Metro could be deemed a ‘non-place’, since it ‘cannot be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity’ (Auge, 1995: 77) unlike the train. Auge argues ‘supermodernity produces non-places’ (Auge, 1995: 78) such as hospitals, holiday clubs, supermarkets that are about ‘the temporary and ephemeral’ (Auge, 1995: 78). The Delhi Metro as new filmic mise-en-scene connotes a sanitised, controlled space, in stark contrast to the intimacy, noise and disorder of the train.

Simultaneously the Delhi Metro has been interpreted as a space of gender liberation. Here I want to bring in the ethnographic view of the Delhi Metro by Rashmi Sadana in which sees looks specifically at space as ideology. Sadana (2010: 82) says the ‘gender neutrality’ on the Metro makes it ‘a safe space for women’ and links her study to recent Indian films. In Delhi 6, Bittoo (Sonam Kapoor), a young Muslim girl, ‘trying to forge her own identity’ (2010: 82) is ‘framed by her going into and out of metro stations’ (2010: 82) in which ‘she sheds her salwar-kameez for belly button revealing tight tops’ (2010: 82). This refutes Auge’s argument about the Metro as a non-place, offering a cultural space for Bittoo to create a new identity while transgressing traditional gender expectations. In many ways, it is the newness of the Delhi Metro that has attracted Indian cinema, offering an image of a super modern, technologically advanced India that runs contrary to the old, polluting and archaic image of the ubiquitous train. It is unlikely that the Delhi Metro represents a threat to the iconography of the train but it does offer filmmakers with new possibilities with which to stage songs, action and romance.

Film genre as an academic discipline still leads to an ‘unduly prescriptive form of criticism’ (Ryall, 1978: 24) particularly when films are determined by thematic content. The iconographic interpretation of the visual culture of Indian films by film audiences is a question that remains unanswered in the context of this study. What role does the audience play in determining genre? What expectations are provoked when a train appears on screen? In many ways, the audience is intrinsic to the way genres function and the pleasures they offer. More research into the way audiences use Indian film genres would be useful here in answering significant questions about ‘whether the image has a meaning which is independent of the director’s use of it’ (Ryall, 1978: 32). Perhaps the most appropriate way of situating the duality of the train as an iconographic and ideological visual element of Indian cinema is through viewing genres as ‘patterns/forms/styles/ structures which transcend individual films, and which supervise both their construction by the filmmaker and their reading by an audience’ (Ryall, 1975: 27 – 28).

The train is one of many patterns, images and iconography present in the visual grammar of Indian cinema. Film genres are still defined on thematic and ideological lines. Then in the context of Indian cinema especially popular Hindi cinema that communicates with audiences in predominantly visual terms, the significance of Panofsky’s iconology becomes even more salient as ‘it emphasized the visual motifs and symbolic language of art rather than individual or mythic narrative’ (Flint, 2004: 32). If anything, the train is an enduring image in Indian culture, which films have used to narrate, negotiate and contest cultural, national and personal ideologies ‘that provide both familiarity and variety’ (Flint, 2004: 32-33) for audiences.


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Filmography (films appear in the order cited in the text)

Sattawis Down / 27 Down (Awtar Krishna Paul, 1974)
Chennai Express (Rohit Shetty, 2013)
Meghe Dhaka Tara / The Cloud Capped Star (Ritwik Ghatak, 1960)
Yaadon Ki Baraat / Procession of Memories (Nasir Hussain, 1973)
Aradhana / Worship (Shakti Samanta, 1969)
Satya / Truth (Ram Gopal Varma, 1998)
Company (Ram Gopal Varma, 2002)
Sarkar / Government (Ram Gopal Varma, 2005)
Ab Tak Chhappan / So far fifty six (Shimit Amin, 2004)
Kaminey / Scoundrels (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2009)
D (Vishram Sawant, 2005)
Black Friday (Anurag Kashyap, 2004)
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge / The Brave Hearted Will Take Away the Bride (Aditya Chopra, 1995)
The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)
A Kiss in the Tunnel (G. A. Smith, 1899)
The Story of Film: An Odyssey (Mark Cousins, 2011)
L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat / The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (Lumieres, 1896)La Roue / The Wheel (Abel Gance, 1923)
Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
Panorama of Calcutta, India, from the River Ganges (1899)
Jawani Ki Hawa / The Wind of Youth (Franz Osten, 1935)
Vilasi Ishwar / Orphans of the Storm (Master Vinayak, 1935)
Achhut Kanya / The Untouchable Girl (Franz Osten, 1936)
Manzil / Destination (P. C. Barua, 1936)
Miss Frontier Mail (Homi Wadia, 1936)
Sholay / Flames (Ramesh Sippy, 1975)
The Great Train Robbery (Edwin Porter, 1903)
Khotey Sikkay (Narendra Bedi, 1974)
The Burning Train (Ravi Chopra, 1980)
The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974)
The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
Dhoom 2 (Sanjay Gadhvi, 2006)
Solva Saal / Sixteenth Year (Raj Khosla, 1958)
Kala Bazar / Black Market (Vijay Anand, 1960)
Dil Se / From the Heart (Mani Ratnam, 1998)
Baazi / Gamble (Guru Dutt, 1951)
Jaal / Trap (Guru Dutt, 1952)
Taxi Driver (Chetan Anand, 1954)
The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007)
Barfi (Anurag Basu, 2012)
Parineeta / The Married Woman (Pradeep Sarkar, 2005)
Dabangg (Abhinav Kashyap, 2010)
Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948)
Pather Panchali / Song of the Little Road (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
Aparajito / The Unvanquished (Satyajit Ray, 1956)
Apur Sansar / The World of Apu (Satyajit Ray, 1959)
Abhijan / The Expedition (Satyajit Ray, 1962)
Nayak / The Hero (Satyajit Ray, 1966)
Aag / Fire (Raj Kapoor, 1948)
Lahore (M. L. Anand, 1949)
Chhalia (Manmohan Desai, 1960)
1947: Earth (Deepa Mehta, 1998)
Train to Pakistan (Pamela Rooks, 1998)
Swades / Homeland (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2004)
Ra One (Anubhav Sinha, 2011)
Main Hoon Na / I am Here (Farah Khan, 2004)
Mumbai Meri Jaan / Mumbai My Life (Nishikant Kumar, 2008)
Paa / Father (R. Balki, 2009)
Love Aaj Kal / Love Nowadays (Imtiaz Ali, 2009)
Dev D (Anurag Kashyap, 2009)
Delhi 6 (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2009)


Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Part 6: Stardom and the Train – Shahrukh Khan


Swades; the train is intertwined with the star image of SRK.

Two fathers, two lovers, and of course, a train. This is the ending to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) (1995), a ‘seminal text about diasporic representation and consumption of Indian popular culture’ (Mishra, 2002: 250). The choice of setting, a train station, is critical though, and so is the train that arrives to carry away our lovers. This final part will explore the train from a contemporary perspective focusing on the way Shahrukh Khan’s (SRK) star image has been cultivated around the train, a connection that he first established in 1997 with DDLJ. In doing so, I will analyse sequences from DDLJ, Swades (Homeland, 2004) and Ra One (2011) discussing the train’s wider relationship with diaspora and globalisation.

Since Raj (Shahrukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) first meet on a train, the implication of the train in the final sequence works thematically, restating the iconographic vigour of the train as a transient symbol. Virdi contends ‘romance is the trope for transgression, and the romantic couple’s bond stands for transforming the status quo’ (Virdi, 2003: 200). In this context, the train can be viewed as a physical extension of this transgression, taking them away from an oppressive patriarchal orthodoxy. Furthermore, the ideological meaning of the train recalls the first half of the film in which the train is used as a narrative device to navigate through Europe and detail the romantic encounters of Raj and Simran. In many ways, the train is transformed into a metonym of the South Asian diaspora, visualising the transient nature of diaspora that is in a constant state of flux.

The diasporic nature of the train is made altogether more prescient with the presence of SRK who Dudrah (2006: 85) argues ‘is able to perform most successfully the anxieties, hopes and fantasies of urban India and its related South Asian diasporas’. Vasudevan supports this view of SRK as India’s first truly diasporic star, labeling him ‘the key icon of the diaspora family social film’ (Vasudevan, 2011: 369). When Simran runs along the train platform, reaching out to Raj, he pulls her up into the train carriage. Other than reasserting the connection between romance and the train established in the late 1950s and 1960s, this ideologically defiant moment was conclusive in shaping Bollywood diasporic cinema: ‘SRK’s rise as the urban/diasporic Indian on screen has been in tandem with the circulation of Bollywood in the moment of globalisation’ (Dudrah, 2006: 86). Although Raj and Simran’s union is conventional in terms of the Bollywood love story, their preferred means of escape from an old India to a new globalised idea of the world conflates diaspora with globalisation via the train. Virdi (2003: 197) argues films like DDLJ tap into another fear concerning ‘the diasporic Indian’ and ‘invasion of the west’ that threatens indigenous ‘Indian identity’. In this respect, the relationship SRK developed with the train not only articulates transgression and diaspora but also manifests a much deeper anxiety concerning the identity of Indian nationhood in a globalised world.

This makes SRK ‘the preferred mediator between the homeland and its diaspora’ (Dudrah, 2006: 86). Nevertheless, when Simran is forcibly taken to India to be married, it is the train that ‘takes the family through the green fields of Punjab’ (Mishra, 2002: 254), introducing the homeland. And since it is the train that also introduces Simran to Europe, it is the train that intervenes at the end to take them away from the homeland. This is suggestive as one could reason the train is the one element that remains consistent, acting as a metaphorical bridge between the national and the global. Vasudevan (2011: 371) states the father ‘releases the daughter into the expanded space of the nation’. If the ‘expanded space’ includes the Indian diaspora then what we also find is an acceptance of sorts that transcends romantic ideals and maps out a geographical space the train can traverse.

The diasporic star identity cultivated by SRK was developed through the 1990s and into the noughties. I will next concentrate on Swades in which SRK plays a NRI scientist Mohan Bhargav, working for NASA in America, who returns to India only to find a reconnection with his homeland. In one particularly important sequence, we find Mohan on a train. Mohan is making his way back from a village, having witnessed abject poverty with which he is unable to reconcile. The train stops at a station. As Mohan sits waiting for the train to continue its journey, he sees a young boy selling water to train passengers. Mohan also buys a cup of water. As he drinks the water, the guilt of returning to America and abandoning his homeland strikes a chord, leading Mohan to question his diasporic status and ‘experience the lived reality of India’ (Sinha, 2012: 192). Raj, the NRI of DDLJ who has a tenuous link to his homeland of India is far removed from Mohan’s attempt to re-forge an authentic link with his ancestral homeland that is seen ‘through his gradual adaptation of everyday life in Charanpur’ (Sinha, 2012: 193).

The exchange between Mohan and the boy at the railway platform is notable in terms of the way the train is utilized and framed because ‘Gowariker constitutes the subjectivity of diaspora by making Mohan undergo a process of belonging at the level of everyday’ (Sinha, 2012: 191). When Mohan looks out of the train compartment, his view is partially obscured by the bars running across the window, articulating metaphorically the boy’s imprisonment in a desperate, impoverished reality. Similarly, the boy’s point of view sees Mohan appear also like a prisoner with the bars running across his body. This parallel visual metaphor of the train as a claustrophobic space signifies the sense of imprisonment realized by both Mohan and the boy is a shared experience. In DDLJ the very fact that the train is in motion, leaving behind orthodoxy at the end, represents the nature of contemporary NRI identity was both transient and evolving in the context of 1990s globalisation. In comparison, the once ephemeral train in DDLJ pauses in Swades to take stock of a global identity that has severed a sacred link between the diaspora community and its ancestral land, resulting in the identity crisis of Mohan. In both cases, the stardom of SRK remains essential, mediating and imagining diasporic anxieties via the iconographic and ideological duality of the train.

After the July 2006 Mumbai train bombings, the image of the train in Indian cinema took on more anxious connotations. Now that the train was a target for terrorism, mainstream Hindi cinema deflected such real concerns in films like Mumbai Meri Jaan (Mumbai My Life, 2008). Ra One, one of Indian cinema’s boldest attempts at the science fiction genre, recalled the fear of terrorism in context of the Mumbai train commuter with a sequence that sees SRK as superhero G One stopping a runaway train during rush hour. By returning to the conventional idiom of the train as an action spectacle, the sequence uses visual effects such as bullet time to show the impossible: SRK jumping from train carriages, running across the top of a moving train, and flying through the air.

The sequence in the context of the superhero narrative appears fairly generic: a set piece showcasing the powers of the superhero. Nonetheless, the choice to use the train is noteworthy in a number of ways. Firstly, the speed created by the train is a visceral element necessary for the breathlessness of the sequence. The high tempo music track ‘Raftaarein’ is used to fuel this on screen energy while matching the physical prowess of SRK’s heroism. Secondly, the ordinariness of the train as part of daily commuter life in Mumbai suddenly coming under attack from an unknown force amplifies current anxieties associated with terrorism. Thirdly, the device of the runaway train, often used in action films, creates a narrative deadline used to build suspense. As I have already discussed, in DDLJ and Swades, SRK’s status as an NRI in the films he has starred in and his relationship with the train ‘mediate homeland, diasporic and transnational sensibilities’ (Dudrah, 2006: 92). Furthermore, SRK’s secularist star image, imagines a heroism that mediates and intervenes on behalf of the nation recalling Main Hoon Na: ‘Shahrukh Khan’s role can be read as averting a threat to the nation, India’ (Dudrah, 2006: 89).

At the end of the sequence, SRK as G One succeeds in saving the lives of the passengers, temporarily containing the threat posed by Ra One (Arjun Rampal), the villain. Dudrah (2006: 91) argues ‘the individual body of the star, and often the male star, in Hindi cinema has long been a trope for wider socio-cultural, economic and political aspirations, anxieties and comment’. And it is inextricably the body of SRK again which can be interpreted ideologically. Unlike the ‘battered and bloodied’ (Dudrah, 2006: 94) body of Ram in Main Hoon Na symbolising a specific Indo-Pak discourse, the superheroic G One manifests an indestructible body that comes to stand for the new Indian urban male who uses technology ‘through which projects of selfhood are projected on screen’ (Dudrah, 2006: 94). Arguably, there is a subtext here that relates to the rise of Hindutva, the mythological and the proliferation of the hard body in popular Indian cinema. The train, old technology, becomes the perfect iconographic backdrop with which to celebrate new technology, retelling unconsciously the interminable dialogue between tradition and modernity, between old and new India.

[It is worth mentioning that Chennai Express (2013) works as a perfect summation of SRK’s relationship with the train, taking on a tone of self reflexive parody throughout particularly with the opening reference to DDLJ.]