Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Part 5: Metonymy of the Train – Partition, Post colonialism and Trauma

The train in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara.

The Partition of India completely reshaped the image of the train, refracting a myriad of real horror encompassing exile, separation and displacement: ‘The partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 was followed by the forced uprooting of an estimated 18 million people’ (Ali, 1985: 139). In a postcolonial India, the train merged with a new historical reality arguably contesting the train as a site for genre development. Instead, the potency of the train as a vessel for the nation became more pronounced, articulating and negotiating the construction of national identity. The mutation of the train from visual signifier and convention to ideological metonymy projected the nation as ‘an imagined political community’ (Anderson, 1983: 49). Virdi reiterates such a position, arguing the nation is ‘imagined through a stock set of tropes, symbols, characters and narratives that are meant to first air, and then resolve, contemporary anxieties and difficulties’ (Virdi, 2003: 9).

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the development of India as a nation state was at its peak whereby themes of progress, reason and nationhood were inscribed ‘through special cultural referents’ (Virdi, 2003: 7) like the train. Indian cinema’s engagement with partition was not immediate. ‘Broaching such a delicate issue’ (Cossio, 2007: 221) meant the ‘open mention of it in popular culture’ (Virdi, 2003: 34) was ‘more or less completely repressed’ (Virdi, 2003: 34). Between 1947 – 1962, ‘fewer than a dozen films featured notably explicit representations of the Partition’ (Sarkar, 2009: 98) and some of the earliest engagements came from mainstream cinema including Raj Kapoor’s Aag (Fire, 1948) and Lahore (1949), ‘a Hindi social melodrama’ (Daiya, 2011: 88) that dealt with ‘the popular theme of lovers separated by Partition and the fate of abducted women’ (Daiya, 2011: 88). One of the first films to confront the trauma of partition was Chhalia (1960). This will be the starting point of my close analysis, which will also include Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and 1947: Earth (1998).

Some of the first films to deal with partition explicitly chose to focus on the ‘experiences of abducted women’ (Major, 1995: 58) with the aim to ‘augment the present historical record on the horrors of 1947’ (Major, 1995: 58). As part of a wider ‘popular secularist discourse’ (Vasudevan, 2011: 152) Chhalia engages with ‘the problems posed by the repatriation and rehabilitation of women’ (Vasudevan, 2011: 152) after partition. Since the train’s relationship to partition is of interest to this part I want to analyse the opening to Chhalia, discussing further the transformation of the train from an iconographic function to an ideologically interventionist one. The film opens with a long shot of a speeding train moving from right to left. A cut to a sign outside of the moving train reads ‘Lahore to Delhi’. It is significant the first image of the first mainstream Hindi film to directly deal with partition is that of a train. No longer is the train framed as spectacle. The train is now tied up in history, a new reality. This shift acknowledges the optimism of the train as a trope of India’s future has been replaced by imagery of trauma: ‘a dominant trope of Partition’s exemplary violence is the image of trains arriving from each country laden with the slaughtered bodies of refugees’ (Daiya, 2011: 6). The camera then moves closer to a window on the train. A hand clears away the condensation revealing the face of Shanti (Nutan), a refugee of partition. The action of clearing away the condensation read metaphorically interpellates this film is going to ‘unveil’ the horrors of partition. More importantly, the significance of a woman’s face, the real victim of partition, will attempt to re-narrate the story of partition from an entirely new gender perspective ‘to effect an honourable, post-partition reconstitution of the moral order’ (Major, 1995: 58). Since the train is in motion points to the transient state of women abducted during partition.

Inside the train compartment Nutan turns away from the window smiling at the other women refugees, saying ‘We have reached India. Our India’. The sense of returning home after a period of forced exile also alludes to the train as one of the last remaining links between India and Pakistan, something that still survives today: ‘Running between Amritsar in India and Lahore in Pakistan, the Samjhuata Express is the oldest train link between India & Pakistan’ (Daiya, 2011: 3). Shanti goes on to say, ‘I have borne lots of suffering to finally see this moment’, underlining the trauma of her exile. Historically the story of Shanti, an exile and refugee separated from her homeland and family because of partition articulates ‘the efforts made by the Indian and Pakistani governments during and after the partition to recover and rehabilitate’ (Major, 1995: 58) women abducted in the Punjab in 1947. In the case of Shanti, when she returns to her family, she is faced ‘with troubled resistance, even outright rejection’ (Sarkar, 2009: 175). Sarkar argues women like Shanti ‘experience a deep crisis of identity: homeless and abandoned in a most profound sense, they belong nowhere’ (2009: 175). The train conveys this sense of exclusion since its transient nature means Shanti is nowhere and everywhere at the same time, expressing the essence of what it means to be a refugee. The opening sequence on the moving train concludes with Shanti remembering her time in Lahore, triggering a flashback to 1947. This idea of memory is equally significant, foregrounding the subjective nature of partition, an event that relies on the testimony and memories of its victims.

The ideological shift with the train’s alignment to a wider historical context politicised an iconographic aspect of Indian cinema that also resonated in art cinema. The films of Ritwik Ghatak especially his Partition trilogy ‘had East Bengal refugees as their subject’ (Tan & Kudaisya, 2002: 19) exploring ‘the sense of loss’ (Tan & Kudaisya, 2002: 19) brought on by his own personal status as an exile and refugee. The trauma of partition in the cinema of Ghatak, experienced by women, was a theme that united populist and art cinema. In Meghe Dhaka Tara Ghatak makes strategic use of the train on three separate occasions. I want to briefly explore Ghatak’s use of the train from an ideological perspective. The story of Meghe Dhaka Tara is that of Nita who sacrifices her own ambitions to protect her family that have been displaced from West Bengal. Of particular interest is Ghatak’s use of framing to depict the train: ‘The force of Ghatak’s melodrama derives largely from its formalization, evident at the micro level of the shot’ (Sarkar, 2009: 224).

The first occasion we see the train it is framed in a deep focus shot in which all three planes of action are organized meticulously. Nita takes up the foreground emphasizing her affectionate facial expression as she responds to her brother Shankar whom takes up the middle of the frame on the ground practicing his singing. The background sees the train cutting across the top of the frame with the sound of the train whistle extenuated on the soundtrack. When Nita moves out of the frame, the train continues to pass across the landscape and the sounds of Shankar singing melodiously and the harshness of the train whistle seem to collide, articulating a thematic clash between partition (symbolised by the train) and tradition (Shankar’s melody). Since Nita and Shankar are effectively living in exile, the train’s aural and physical presence is represented as an intrusion on their relationship, reminding them and us of the realities of partition. Chiefly the train as an ideological metonym of partition disrupts the notion of family, a central theme in Ghatak’s work.

Ghatak returns to this specific locale on two more occasions specifically replicating the framing from the first instance. This time the context in which the train appears is different. Nita and Sanat’s desire for a relationship is undermined by his unemployed status. Sanat does not want to rely on Nita as the breadwinner. When Nita gets up to leave, Sanat grabs her hand and the disruptive sound of an approaching train rises out of the soundtrack undercutting the romance of the moment. The aural is quickly taken over by the physical with the train cutting across the top of the frame, positioning Sanat and Nita on the ground looking slightly bemused. Instead, romance turns to dread with the ideological potency of the train reminding them of their status as refugees. The train seems to violate any chance of happiness, re-configuring their identity to partition. Sarkar argues Ghatak ‘returns obsessively to what is, for him, the orginary site of trauma, and constantly rewrites the story of his community’ (2009: 207). What if in Meghe Dhaka Tara this ‘site of trauma’ is the train? Ghatak’s repeated use of the train at strategic points in the narrative certainly testifies a rigorous linkage to Nita that ‘mark the irruptions of irrepressibly real female lives and subjectivities’ (Sarkar, 2009: 218). Nita as a ‘recording of women’s suffering’ (Sarkar, 2009: 217) remains constant in all three occasions in which we see the train.

The third and final occasion is the most despondent. Sanat has fallen in love with Gita, Nita’s sister and they are now married whereas Nita has become ill from tuberculosis. Sanat and Nita meet under very different circumstances in the same spot when Sanat first grabbed Nita’s hand. Sanat still harbours feelings for Nita. When he repeats the romantic gesture of taking Nita’s hand, the moment is disrupted by first, the aural, and then the physical presence of the train. Nita reacts despondently, rejecting Sanat’s premature affections. The next cut is to a long shot of Sanat and Nita, the framing replicating the second occasion with the train, sitting on a riverbank as the train moves from right to left across the top of the frame. This long shot is arguably the most ideologically pronounced as the loose framing that finds Sanat and Nita appear lost in the landscape points to their exilic status and acute sense of displacement. In the words of Sarkar, ‘Ghatak displays the symptoms of melancholic’ (Sarkar, 2009: 228) and ‘his engagement with Partition takes the form of primitive mourning work’ (Sarkar, 2009: 228). The disjunctive presence of the train dominates this shot, reminding them of partition but also silencing a ‘tremendous personal agony’ (Sarkar, 2009: 227) representative of Ghatak’s own sentiments. In many ways, Meghe Dhaka Tara mourns the loss of the train as a symbol of progress, hijacked by a history of violent separation. One could argue partition hijacked the iconographic potential of the train conflating it with a specific historical context from which it never recovered. The meaning of the train became suspended in time.

I want to end the essay briefly analysing a sequence from 1947: Earth (Deepa Mehta, 1999), which is a case in point when discussing the contemporary relationship between the train and partition . Writer Bhaskar Sarkar is critical of Earth, arguing the film uses stereotypical imagery, limiting the way we think about partition: ‘films like Earth turn banal in their recycling of what are, essentially, images of other images’ (Sarkar, 2009: 283). Daiya is similarly vocal about the film’s incompatibility between history and form: ‘Earth represents Partition’s historical violence by aestheticizing it’ (2008: 60). The sequence begins with Dil Navaz (Aamir Khan) waiting at a train platform in Lahore for the train carrying his sisters. Mehta frames Dil Navaz, a Muslim, sitting alongside Hindus and Sikhs. It is a fragile coexistence but one that reiterates the egalitarian nature of the train platform. As the train finally pulls into the platform it appears silently, producing a ghostly effect unsettling Dil Navaz. Racing onboard the train, the camera tilts down following Dil Navaz as he touches the floor of the train compartment. He brings his hand to his face, gasping at the blood. Dil Navaz now finally comes face to face with the horrors of communalism. The sequence finishes with a series of shots from inside the compartment of dead bodies. Debatably, the train as death is one of the most public images associated with partition.

In many ways, this sequence returns to one of my initial questions; does the
iconographic serve a wider ideological obligation? In the case of films that dealt with partition the train’s mutation from progressive technology to acting as a catalyst for communal violence politicized the iconographic. In doing so, the train as a barometer of historical change, replicates the very functions of film genres.


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