Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Part 2: The Train as Action Spectacle


A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899)

French film critic Dominique Noguez suggests that perhaps no form of transport has haunted the history of cinema as much as the train’.                                                                                                            –Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema, 1997

The history of the railway and train predates the first feature film in Indian cinema by at least forty years. The first passenger rail service opened in 1853 from Bombay to Thane. If the railway system heralded modernity national leaders initially perceived it ‘as an extension of Western imperialism’ (Kirby, 1997:5) and projection of British colonial rule, developed accordingly to suit ‘business interests in England’ (Nock, 1978: 8). During the push for independence the railway transpired as a ‘sign of an independent, industrialized nation’ (Aguiar, 2011: 101). Indeed a filmic beguilement with the train was not limited exclusively to India, finding an earlier aesthetic and technological imperative in silent cinema. In a single, unbroken take lasting for 50 seconds, the Lumiere brothers created history. L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat / The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (Lumieres, 1896) is about observational and actuality. We see a train in the distance, it stops at a station, and passengers disembark onto the platform. Such a trivial yet historical moment in announcing the train, an inherent image of film, would fuel the imagination of directors for years to come. While at first the train was a formidable spectacle, it soon grew into a narrative and thematic constituent. The invention of the ‘phantom ride’ (Cousins, 2011: 25) as a ‘new visual experience for the audience’ (Cousins, 2011: 25), created by placing a camera at the front of a train, produced a ghostly effect in films such as A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899). This short film ‘featured a stolen kiss aboard a carriage car’ (Leppla, 2003), introducing romance to the train; an association that would become distinctive to Indian cinema.

For filmmakers searching to attract audiences the phantom ride produced movement essential to the evolution of a visual grammar. Accordingly, the early fascination with the train was also due to its technological function, prefiguring the invention of the dolly. Above all, the phantom ride ‘would become one of cinema’s most effective ways of putting the audience in the place of a traveller’ (Cousins, 2011: 26). None of this was lost on Indian cinema. The train journey, a visual compression of space and time, offered audiences an imaginary mobility, turning them into virtual travellers in a nation interconnected by its railways and trains. This coincided with the emergence of ‘one of the great genres of early cinema, the travel genre’ (Kirby, 1997: 41). Similarly, the 1910s and 1920s beheld the train as a technological tool for filmmakers, participating in the realisation of travelogues, ‘developed from its roots in simple actuality’ (Stewart, 2003). Kirby reasons by the 1920s ‘many experimental European films returned to the train as a terrifying vehicle of speed and a dynamic technology capable of representing film’s own power’ (Kirby, 1997: 8). La Roue (The Wheel, 1923) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929) ‘celebrated modernity as a liberating force’ (Kirby, 1997: 9).

Indian cinema between 1910 and 1930 has not been sufficiently researched so the history of Indian film in the silent era is an allusive one, limiting my attempts to trace an accurate historiography of the train in Indian cinema. Films made in Europe and America during the silent era, as the ones pointed out by Kirby, tell us that similar creative experimentations may have occurred in Indian cinema at the time. It was not until the 1930s with the rise of major film studios did the train become more prominent in Indian cinema. For example Jawani Ki Hawa / The Wind of Youth (Bombay Talkies, 1935), Vilasi Ishwar / Orphans of the Storm (Kolhapur Cinetone, 1935), Achhut Kanya / The Untouchable Girl (Bombay Talkies, 1936) and Manzil / Destination (New Theatres, 1936) to name a few all featured the train as either a decorative, perfunctory part of the mise en scene or as an integral narrative/thematic device.

Fearless Nadia.

New horizons for the train also led to a cycle of train films in the mid 1930s produced by Wadia Movietone. Fearless Nadia, one of India’s first female heroines, was the star attraction. This cycle of films used the train to stage spectacular action sequences to ‘show off film’s power of registration, its ability to capture movement and speed’ (Kirby, 1997: 20). The train was also a chiefly boyish object. In fact, equating masculinity with the railway ‘from around 1880 to World War I’ (Kirby, 1997: 78) occurred culturally since ‘advertisements for model trains were addressed to male fantasies and aspirations’ (Kirby, 1997: 78). The image of a strong Indian woman like Nadia ‘running triumphantly along the tops of trains, fist fighting her male tormentors’ (Thomas, 2005: 45) reversed gender expectations so the female heroine ‘was unambiguously in control’ (Thomas, 2005: 56) of the narrative. Thomas goes on to say that audiences interpreted the Nadia stunt films as ‘anti-British allegories’ (Thomas, 2005: 50) implying the train was used to explore not only gender such as ‘women’s emancipation’ (Thomas, 2005: 46) but also wider political issues like the struggle for freedom. Even so Vitali (2008: 93) contends the train in these stunt films expressing ‘industrial modernity as a positively desirable horizon’ contradicts dominant anti-colonialist readings.

If industrial modernity was a desire articulated through the female character as a ‘diegetic manifestation’ (Vitali, 2008: 93) what made a film like Miss Frontier Mail (1936) significant was not its radical ideological mode of address but the capacity to use the train for rhythmic, spatial and narrative purposes: ‘The task at hand in Miss Frontier Mall…was to break continuous space, to convey a sense of movement in the place. Recurring images of a train moving across the landscape and the frame or towards the camera at great speed do precisely that’ (Vitali, 2008: 107). As a multiple and pluralistic construction the train would steadily transmute into an inclusive cultural cinematic mode, transcending the restrictive labels of ‘motifs’ and ‘symbols’, finally becoming something more iconographically substantial.

The association of the train with the action film in Indian cinema can also be traced to the Hollywood Western. Intriguingly one of Indian cinema’s most celebrated films Sholay (1975) is ‘founded on the knowledge that the daku (dacoit) film has several characteristics in common with the western’ (Raghavendra, 2006: 38) and opens with an audacious set piece involving a group of bandits, two ‘rootless mercenaries’ (Gopalan, 2009: 166) – Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra), and a steam locomotive. Prasad (1998: 156) seems convinced the primary ‘narrative material’ for Sholay were ‘spaghetti westerns’. This complicates the genre status of Sholay and underlines the problems with trying to categorise Indian films according to typage. Remarkably, the first shot of Sholay is a train arriving at a station, a key image of the western explicitly announcing the genre status of the film but also recalling the birth of cinema.

Nonetheless, many writers are in agreement Khotey Sikkay (1974) has been overlooked as a key influence on Sholay. In fact Prasad contends Khotey Sikkay was part of a sub genre of ‘cheaply made films’ appearing before Sholay that ‘re-duplicated the cultural status of the spaghetti western’ (1998: 156). Prasad’s final point on the ‘enthusiasm of proletarian audiences’ (1998: 156) who helped popularise the sub genre of Indian westerns underlines a common assertion that low genres particularly sub-genres are watched largely by working class audiences. This link between film genres and audiences is expressly important in arguing the iconography of the train indiscriminately cuts across the spectrum of Indian cinema including genres, cinemas and film styles. This is a point I will explore further when I look at the use of trains in the cinema of Satyajit Ray.

Sholay 1
The opening to Sholay is marked by the arrival of a train at a station.

Unlike the Nadia stunt films, in the context of the Angry Young Man film and the Masala film, in Sholay the train is re-gendered in traditional terms whereby its stoicism is conflated with the machismo of a familiar brand of male heroism. The train itself is predominantly framed using wide shots to exemplify a prowess as it surges forward in the sequence while the rhythmical editing projects the spectacle of the train as one of invincibility. Nevertheless, the clash is very elemental. The train denotes accelerated modernity whereas the bandits on horseback stand for a traditional feudal ideology. At one point in the sequence the speed of the train is too fast for the bandits who abandon their horses and board the train. This can be interpreted ideologically since the bandits are forced to surrender a way of life in which there is no negotiation or equilibrium between the forces of tradition and modernity. In the Hollywood western ‘the progress and modernity of the railroad came to stand for American progress’ (Kirby, 1997: 201) which is equally applicable to the train’s enunciation of India’s progress in terms of industrialization.

Once on board the train the bandits come up against the ingenuity of Jai and Veeru. By using the train, Jai and Veeru outsmart the bandits, proving their sensibilities are in synch with an emerging modernist attitude. More pointedly the train as a metonym of industrial modernity is underlined by the bandits’ failure to capture and de-rail the train commenting on the way progress and change is both inevitable and unstoppable. An alternate reading of the bandits’ incursion can be drawn here. Recalling a familiar narrative situation, ‘the image of barbaric Indians attacking a beleaguered train of white people’ (Kirby, 1997: 206) often found in the Hollywood western, the bandits’ in Sholay situated as the ‘Other’ draws comparisons with hegemonic representations of Native Americans ‘as savages impending American civilization’ (Kirby, 1997: 206). Just as ‘the railroads played a central role in helping push Native peoples of their lands’ (Kirby, 1997: 206), the bandits’ attack on the train, a symbol of modernist oppression, can be viewed as a form of collective resistance and struggle to protect an identity under threat from capitalist expansionism. In many ways, the intervention of actors Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan is particularly instructive as their modernist star image works in parallel with their role as social agents in the narrative of Sholay.

Raghavendra reiterates Gopalan’s argument concerning the ‘episodic nature of Indian popular cinema’ (2006: 41). The opening train sequence is a case in point as it forms one of many set pieces in what Raghavendra terms a ‘conglomerate’ (2006: 41) narrative structure. He also argues Sholay departs from classical notions of genre expectations since ‘each sub-narrative has its own climax and resolution’ (2006: 41) unlike Hollywood films which have continuous, unifying narrative strands that are typically met with closure at the end. Raghavendra’s proposition that sub-narratives are self-contained and have tenuous links with each other certainly reinforces the schizophrenic, cross-pollinating nature of Indian film genres. However, after Jai and Veeru have helped Thakur overcome the bandits they take a decision, tossing a coin, not to escape. It is a decision, which in terms of resolution is not self-contained but has an impact in terms of narrative causality on Thakur, only becoming apparent much later.

Both the Fearless Nadia stunt films and Sholay delineated the train as part of a wider action aesthetic that remained a preoccupation into the 1980s and 1990s. The Burning Train (1980), a film in which a super express train catches fire, exemplified this trend, fusing conventions of the Hollywood disaster film (The Towering Inferno, 1974) with Bollywood melodrama. The poster to the film showed the potent image of a burning train, a signifier of action spectacle, juxtaposed to an ensemble cast including Dharmendra and Hema Malini. The narrative unfolds on a train evoking the claustrophobic atmosphere of Hollywood and British murder mystery thrillers made in the 1930s like The Lady Vanishes (1938).

I want to conclude my focus on the train as a spectacle in the action genre, analysing the opening to Dhoom 2 (2006). Dhoom 2 is part of an ongoing franchise of action films that have been popular with audiences. Released in 2006, the opening to Dhoom 2 is a postmodern fusion of intertexts relying on a ‘combination of digital manipulation and jump cuts’ (Vitali, 2008: 240). This accelerated metatextual hyper action cinema has become a dominant form in Indian cinema. In the opening to Dhoom 2 filmic references range from the Fearless Nadia stunt films to James Bond. The sequence takes place in the Namibia desert, framing the action in a globalised context, reiterating a familiar international aesthetic of many Yash Raj films. The opening theft of jewels by super thief, Mr. A (Hrithik Roshan), from a wealthy, old English lady (The Queen) conceals a compendious, prescient postcolonial ideological subtext about the British crown jewels.

India’s repeated calls for Britain to repatriate jewels plundered as ‘part of Britain’s war treasure’ (Ghoshray, 2007: 748) particularly the Kooh-i-Noor (The Mountain of Light) diamond, ‘regarded as the greatest treasure in India’ (Singh, 2006), becomes a site for national reimagining. India reclaiming the jewels by force and indirectly a stolen history is re-enacted by the stylised intervention of Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan. In the guise of popular entertainment, the train conceals a wider ideological function, recalling Fearless Nadia in the context of her colonial films. After Mr. A has stolen the jewels, he fights bodyguards, culminating in a moment of hyperbole that sees him surfing sand dunes outside the train while dodging bullets. If this hyperbolic action cinema interrupts the narrative flow then the train’s movement forwards ensures the spectacle of action is logically sustained for audiences.

The neo-colonial allegorical reading of India as a globalised nation defending its dignity while making amends for a stolen history is made doubly explicit by staging the action on a train which during the colonial era was viewed as an extension of British imperial rule. By re-appropriating the train, outsmarting the guards and stealing the jewels, conflates the iconographic with the ideological, positing the train as a cathartic outlet for contemporary neo-colonial anxieties. In yet another moment of filmic subversion the image of James Bond, invoked by the parachute jump that kick starts the film, as a white British imperialist is inverted by the casting of Hrithik Roshan, a new type of muscular hard-bodied Bollywood action hero representing the new globalized diasporic India. Since the sequence takes place in Africa suggests the NRI Indian can be anywhere and everywhere. The fusion of such cinematic styles, idioms and conventions reaches back to the super genre category of the Masala film but does so in way that sees Bollywood telling the world it can also succeed at mixing postmodern cinematic address with an intriguing ideological subtext. In the next part in this series, I turn my attention to the ways in which romance and the train have become a perpetual idea in popular Indian cinema.


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