In Amit Dutta’s The Seventh Walk (2013) the camera meanders, weaves and glides through a forest, replicating and distorting the gaze of New Delhi based Indian artist, Paramjit Singh. The dolly shots, evocatively staged, depict the spaces of the forest as oneiric and mysterious. There is sensuality at work in Dutta’s ghostly imagining of the forest, a metaphysical wonderland accentuated through the amplification of a rich non-diegetic soundscape. The morning birdcall, chirping crickets, the whistling wind, bells chiming are some of the sounds that Dutta switches between, imbuing the spaces of the forest with a mystical ambience. The experiential of walking through and inhabiting the forest and related spaces is tactile and sensory, while the repeated emphasis on trees, sunlight, stones, and water conjuring a hypnotic rhythm. At one point, as Paramjit sits in a room, a bottle begins to levitate, and a new realm is projected, one that replicates the subconscious. Blending the imagined work of the painter to real details of the forest, a surrealist tone leads to the materialisation of unforeseen elements such as the young girl dressed in primary yellow, and who at one point magically floats, Dutta choosing to frame this particular moment of flight with the camera fixed to a pair of knitted slippers. Imitating the detailed aesthetics of a series of paintings, the modulations of light and space and striking usage of planimetric framing emerge as a visual pattern that transforms formalist experimental preoccupations into something waywardly poetic.
‘Come children, let’s play a game, Someone comes and someone goes, This is a game of this world, Bell rings at every station, Signal will be given and the flag will wave, Then the train starts moving, Chuk chuk chuk chuk goes the train!’
— Train Song from 27 Down (1974)
A cursory glance at Indian cinema over the decades is more than likely to conjure up periodic reveries of stars, songs and dance. But in the midst of a rich iconographic discourse of visually literate cinema resides the image of the train. It is an image that has remained unfailingly ubiquitous as all the other filmic signifiers. The sounds of a shrieking train, the intimacy of a train compartment, the tumult of the platform. These are some of the ineffaceable minutiae in which the train has been re-imagined for the nascent ideological, narrative and genre paradigms of Indian cinema.
It is not without coincidence one of the biggest Indian films of 2013, Chennai Express , was infatuated with the images of trains. Not just the title, but the poster, narrative and stardom of Shahrukh Khan are entwined in the iconographic motif of the train. This may seem like a patent observation except the dearth of research on the area of trains and their extrinsic relationship with the visual language of Indian cinema demands further analysis. In the simplest of terms, iconography is dominant visual imagery we associate with a particular genre. It is imagery we take for granted. Indeed, the academic discourse on Indian cinema excludes the multifarious significance of iconography. For example, The Visual Culture of Hindi Cinema (2002) by Rachel Dwyer & Divia Patel overlooks iconographic elements intrinsic to Hindi cinema such as trains. Since Indian films across different regions share a conjoint pictorial literacy, most notably narrative interruptions for song and dance spectacle, contextualizing and analysing the train is expressly apposite if we are to fully comprehend the extent of such visual grammar in communicating with a mass audience.
The train has routinely been used in Indian films to explore death (The Apu Trilogy), partition (Meghe Dhaka Tara / The Cloud Capped Star, 1960), separation (Yaadon Ki Baraat / Procession of Memories, 1973) and romance (Aradhana / Worship, 1969). I want to investigate if the ways in which Indian films have been depicted on screen can be categorised under specific thematics. Partition/displacement, love & dance, life & death, fate & justice, postmodern exchange, stardom are some of the provisional categories warranting further research. Another question arises in relation to trains as iconography: have they been used often enough to be labeled a key visual motif or convention characterising more than just one genre? Concurrently, does the image of the train appear across all Indian film genres or is it specific to a few or just one genre? A major aim of my study will be to try and reclaim the inchoate field of iconography, situating it as part of a wider lexicon of film grammar specific to the way Indian cinema constructs narrative and genre. This will be a text based study, analysing relevant sequences ranging from popular Hindi cinema to Bengali art cinema. The iconographic connotation of trains will be extended to a relationship with ideology, exploring if trains can transmit ideologies that point to both an internal logic and external real world narrative. For example, was the advent of trains in film an outcome of India’s push for modernity, and how did the train come to represent ideology cinematically?
Traditional genre theory will be critical, namely the work by Rick Altman (1999), Steve Neale (1999), Colin McArthur (1969), Ed Buscombe (1969) and Barry Keith Grant (Film Genre Readers 1 – 4; 1986 – 2012). However, applying film genre theory to Indian cinema will be done cautiously since the way we watch and analyse Indian films is radically different to Hollywood cinema. This is why traditional genre theory will be supported by an application of key writings on Indian film genres including the work of Madhava Prasad (2001), Gokulsing & Dissanayake (2004), Lalitha Gopalan (2002), Gayatri Chatterjee (2005), Rajinder Dudrah (2006) and Jigna Desai (2008).
Iconographic and ideological meanings will be considered in relation to an aesthetic (audio and visual space) examination of the way trains are presented through formal elements such as mise-en-scene and editing. A closer engagement with micro details will determine the way trains offer a visceral quality producing an on screen visual momentum while also acting as a site for narrative/thematic development. In addition to the areas outlined above, I will frame the analysis of trains against a wider consideration of changing historical contexts including the colonial era, post partition India, Nehru’s modern India and the postmodern, globalised India of today. I will conclude with a consideration of the emergence of rapid transport in India, posing the question: in what ways do recent representations of the Delhi Metro challenge and the train as a new site of contemporary urban ideological and iconographic exchange?
[This series of posts has been adapted from the dissertation I submitted as part of my Masters at the University of Manchester back in 2014. There is a lot that I couldn’t cover since the area of the train and how it has been imagined over a number of decades is quite broad and fluid. There is still a litany of recent Indian films in which the train is imagined as either part of the narrative or as a motif. And clearly there is scope to pursue further how the train is utilised in genres such as the crime/noir film. Given the limitations with most analytical studies I had to focus on certain areas at the expense of others but the idea of iconography remains very much at the heart of the study.]
In Parallel Cinema the co existence of creative streams accommodated divergent aesthetic reckonings. The initial films of the Kannada new wave spearheaded by the likes of Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth adopted a largely neo realist approach that was more in line with Ray’s cinema and which was later exemplified by Benegal. The realist tag is an unwelcoming label associated with Parallel Cinema but in some instances is justified and warrants exploring further. The regional flourishes expressly from Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka were aligned in a cinematic radicalism that mapped a frontal attack on all kinds of orthodoxies specifically caste and religion. Based on the novel by Kannada writer S. L. Bhyrappa, Vamsha Vriksha, a key work in the foundational years of Parallel Cinema, uses the concept of the family tree as an extended metaphor, attacking head on the patriarchy and double standards of Brahminical culture that literally imprisons women. Perhaps the radicalism of Parallel Cinema films from the South wasn’t strictly aesthetic but far more visible in the confrontational and unconventional thematic tone.
The narrative of Vamsha Vriksha unfolds essentially from the perspective of the woman, a radical about turn in the ways in which Parallel Cinema was forging a new path for counter gender representations. Kathyayani (L. V. Sharada Rao) is widowed at an early age with a young son. She feels trapped, sitting idly at home, and like Charulata in Ray’s film, the opening captures her boredom and isolation as she is reduced to staring out of the windows at the lives of others. Kathyayani overturns tradition, re-marrying and eventually leaving her in-laws. But she does at the expense of being forced to leave her son with her in-laws who claim a hereditary right over the boy. This condition placed upon Kathyayani is cruel; severing a parental bond that becomes part of a deeper psychological struggle she must overcome. However, the radicalism of Vamsha Vriksha comes from the agency of Kathyayani who not only pursues an education, later becoming a teacher, but also continually exposes the tyranny of tradition and corresponding hypocrisies. ‘In our society, a man can marry ten times, but a woman has to suppress all her desires’, exclaims Kathyayani to her father in law.
As we come to discover, the family tree has many branches but they don’t all grow the same way. Moreover, assuming a lofty moral position based on religion is prone to derision particularly when the history of a family has been constructed on a lie, one that is unmasked by the patriarch of the story. While the coda is about reconciliation, Karanth and Karnad conclude that tradition has a way of imposing itself on the past and present, distorting attempts to create new and alternate histories.
Aravindan’s 1979 feature film Estheppan (Stephen) is a companion piece to Kummatty, also released in 1979. Estheppan, a mythical entity conjured by a Christian fishing village in Kerala, materialises magically in the contested narratives of the village folk. It is the restful Keralan coastline Aravindan turns to as a natural landscape from which Estheppan emerges. The intent here is a subjective treatment by the village folk who relay their own personal stories of Estheppan, and in the process constructing an episodic narrative that analyses religious mysticism as inherently paradoxical. Like Kummatty, Aravindan adopts a striking rhythmical tone, using strategies of ellipsis and delay to invoke a community in which Estheppan seems both disconnected and vital to its primordial existence. As the threadbare narrative unfolds, Estheppan is increasingly ridiculed in a series of satirical situations that recall the folk rituals that also characterise Kummatty. The flashbacks that recount the tales of Estheppan steadily construct an impression of someone with prophetic powers. And in one of the penultimate sequences Aravindan uses a series of haunting interconnecting shots that simply track Estheppan walking across the Keralan landscapes as someone not of this earth, a mystical guardian and soothsayer who transcends human comprehension. With the constant toiling of the church bell that rises up out of the soundtrack juxtaposed to the sounds of the waves lapping on the shores of the Keralan coastline, it is an aural motif that comes to define an inescapable sensuality at work in Aravindan’s poetic folk tale.