Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Part 3: Romancing the Train

Waheeda Rehman & Dev Anand in Solva Saal (1958).

Whereas the action genre has used the train intermittently, it is the musical and Bollywood romance with which it has become synonymous. By the late 1950s and early 1960s song and dance had become firmly established ‘as the primary vehicles to represent fantasy, desire and passion’ (Ganti, 2004: 81) since ‘the Indian censor board, established by the British government prior to independence, discouraged physical contact’ (Bhattacharya, 2009: 63). Filmmakers discovered increasingly innovative ways of staging songs such as the train’s iconographic transformation from action spectacle to romantic mise-en-scene. This development coincided with the emergence of new romantic heroes including Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor & Rajesh Khanna. Such heroes were regularly seen declaring their love for the leading lady in and around a moving train, allowing ‘us to experience the elaborate development of a romantic relationship in the course of a few moments’ (Hogan, 2008: 165).

Next I want to focus on some key films, analyzing song sequences in terms of form and ideology. I will cogitate the mise en scene of the train and particularly the use of ‘transgressive space’ (Dwyer & Patel, 2002: 68) in ‘negotiating the portrayal of love’ (Bhattacharya, 2009: 63). The films will include Solva Saal (Sixteenth Year, 1958), Kala Bazar (Black Market, 1960) and Aradhana (1969), epitomising the 1960s era. I will also consider the transformation of traditional imagery of romance to a sensual display in a contemporary film like Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998) demonstrated the potential of the train to ‘articulate thoughts and desires which may be inappropriate to state directly’ (Ganti, 2004: 81) such as sexuality.

Dev Anand was one of the first Indian film stars to be seen repeatedly in song sequences set on a train. In one of his earliest films Solva Saal (1958), the song ‘Hai Apna Dil To Aawara, Na Jane Kis Pe Aayega’ is used when a sly journalist Pran (Dev Anand) overhears two lovers on a train (Laaj, the love interest is played by Waheeda Rehman) are eloping with an expensive necklace. However, Laaj is unaware that her boyfriend has plans to double cross her. A song can provide ‘a wide variety of functions within a film’s narrative’ (Ganti, 2004: 80) and in this instance intervenes in a number of ways. Firstly, the song provides Dev Anand with a star entrance in which he playfully sings the lyrics to the song. Secondly, the lyrics, representing love as fickle, are used to make Laaj feel uncomfortable about her boyfriend, arousing suspicions that she harbours. Thirdly, while the train is supposed to be a means of escape for the lovers, the song complicates this idea, extenuating their guilt, and transforming the train compartment into ‘a self-contained stage for romance, seduction and crime’ (Kirby, 1997: 83).

Hogan says the song interlude ‘allows us access to the inner life of the characters’ (2008: 165) in Indian films, which is certainly the case in films like Solva Saal. Similarly in Kala Bazar (1960), black market racketeer Raghuvir (Dev Anand) sings to Alka (Waheeda Rehman) in a train cabin. ‘Apni To Har Aah Ik Toofan Hai’ (Each of my sighs is a tempest) is in the opinion of Booth a ‘disguised love song’ (Booth, 2000: 141) that uses ‘human-divine/romantic-religious ambiguity’ (Booth, 2000:141). Primarily the lyrics articulate a plea for someone who has lost their way in life: ‘Maaf Kar Banda Bhi Ek Insan Hai’ (Forgive this soul, he is human after all) but concurrently also ‘take on a suitably ambivalent meaning’ (Booth, 2000:141) aimed at an unsuspecting Alka in ‘the enforced intimacy of a four-person train compartment’ (Booth, 2000:142).

The sequence begins with Raghuvir looking outside of the window to the train compartment conveying his melancholy. In one shot, which becomes an extended metaphor for Raghuvir’s criminality, the bars from the train window cast a stark reflection across his face indicating entrapment. The use of noir aesthetics transfigures the train compartment, a public space, into an expressionistic one. In another key shot, Raghuvir is placed at the bottom of the frame on a lower berth while Alka occupies the top berth and is positioned much higher. Moreover, Alka is shot using high key lighting (projecting her angelic status) whereas Raghuvir is in low key (extenuating a darkness). This seemingly simplistic divide in terms of spatial arrangement and lighting accentuates the actuality of a wider social estrangement, hinting romantic union is impossible. The resignation experienced by Raghuvir is confirmed in a later shot. This time Raghuvir situated in a tight composition from outside the window of the train, the bars graphically imprisoning him, makes him appear like a prisoner of his own dreams. By also including Alka’s parents in the same compartment complicates the conventional romantic perceptions of the sequence. Booth (2000:141) poses the question: ‘Is it a completely unacceptable flirtatious song sung by a complete stranger to the daughter of respectable family?’ thereby noting the song’s faculty to disrupt social norms.

In the cases of Solva Saal and Kala Bazar the train as a site of romance is portrayed incongruently. Some of this ambivalence can be ascribed to the unconventional acting style of Dev Anand who used ‘deliberately awkward pastiches’ (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 1994: 42) invoking Hollywood actors like ‘Gregory Peck’ and ‘Cary Grant’ (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 1994: 42). The same cannot be said for Rajesh Khanna who in the 1960s along with Shammi Kapoor brought a new modernist vigor to the image of the doomed romantic lover. This is best exemplified in the song ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani’ (The Queen of my Dreams) from Aradhana (1969), fusing iconographic associations of the train with the musical romance. The song sees Arun (Rajesh Khanna) in an open-air jeep serenading Vandana (Sharmila Tagore) who is on a train. Vandana who is in prison recalling her time with Arun initiates the song. Since the first image she remembers is a train reiterates the effectiveness of the train as an instrument for escape and fantasy. While the song is used as a framing device, establishing the romance between Arun (Rajesh Khanna) and Vandana (Sharmila Tagore), the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, also known as the ‘Toy Train’ is in fact the star attraction.

Frequent interruptions in the song, extenuating the iconic significance of the ‘Toy Train’ becomes a celebration of a specific Indian train heritage tied up in a colonial history of Darjeeling as a retreat for the British Empire. At key points in the song, the musical composition takes over, mirroring the rhythmic actions of the train. The personification of the train is taken to its very extreme when at one point we see a series of shots foregrounding a romantic, nostalgic affection for the train recalling British cinema’s ‘special relationship’ with ‘the steam engine’ (Leppla, 2003). This includes exterior shots of the train, the conductor blowing the whistle, the railway line and the train making its way across the hilly terrain. Fetishised train imagery celebrating the idiosyncrasies of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway inspired films like The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Barfi (2012) and Parineeta (The Married Woman, 2005). Aradhana ‘helped set the pattern for 70s entertainment cinema’ (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 1994: 42) and the number of romantic songs that subsequently revolved around the train are too numerous to list.

As a way of exploring the relationship between the musical romance and the train in a more contemporary context I lastly want to concentrate on the ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ (Walk in Shade) song from Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998). The song is instigated by a preliminary encounter between Meghna (Manisha Koirala) and Amar (Shahrukh Khan) who are waiting for a train on a solitary platform. Amar is instantly attracted to Meghna. She sends Amar to get her some tea. He rushes back only to see Meghna has boarded the train. This segues into ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’, manifesting Amar’s love for Meghna. In terms of narrative, the song traces Amar’s journey to Assam. Whereas the initial encounter at the train platform draws on traditional genre expectations of romance and trains, the picturisation of the song on Malaika Arora and Shahrukh Khan dancing flirtatiously produces a sexual frisson eroticizing the train ride. This in many respects confounds iconographic associations of the train as a site for orthodox, conservative representations of romance. Instead, the hybridity of A. R. Rahman’s music complements the visceral energy of the train, which is constantly in motion, surging forward, taking on a sexual personification reciprocating the sensual choreography. If the lyrics of the song metaphorically envisage the romantic longings of Amar then his undying quest to find Meghna is epitomised by the uninterrupted train ride, pointing to an obsessive love that will manifest much later.

Anna Morcom (2011: 168) contends eroticism in the Hindi film song ‘continues an ancient tradition of public female performance in India as seduction and erotic entertainment dating back to courtesans’. ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ also amplifies the sexuality of the item girl in an ‘openly erotic display’ (Morcom, 2011: 169) of the female body. Though, it is not only the female body that is objectified. Lalitha Gopalan says the song articulates ‘the sexual exuberance of the male protagonist’ (2002: 134), undermining efforts to read the song exclusively as part of the male gaze. Whereas the song’s sexualisation of the train in terms of iconography seems modern, the spectacle of the train journey echoes that of ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani’. Like Darjeeling, Otty is represented via the train making its way through the hillside scenery. This stresses the meaning of the train as an interjecting narrative device, bridging the continual alterations between fantasy and reality.

Conceivably among all of the iconographic variations and meanings of the train, romance and love remain closely affiliated with audience expectations, as we know the train, as an exponent of traditional romance is not culturally specific to Indian cinema. Films like Brief Encounter (1945) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) testifies the image of the train as an expression of romance, love and tragedy is one that will remain principally connected to our cinematic consciousness. In the next part, the focus will shift to Ray and alternative Indian cinema of the 1950s and 1960s.


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