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.]



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