Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Introduction


‘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)

27 Down (1974) – The quintessential train film.

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.]

27 DOWN (Dir. Awtar Krishna Kaul, 1974, India) – ‘I just wish to walk…’

27 Down, the only film directed by Awtar Krishna Kaul, before his premature death is one of the great moments in the foundational years of Parallel Cinema. This was the first wave of Parallel Cinema before the FFC criteria was redefined in the mid 1970s because of protestations concerning the types of films being funded were either too esoteric or avant-garde for the tastes of Indian film audiences. 27 Down is about Sanjay (M. K. Raina), a young aspirational man, who is pressured into becoming a train conductor by his lonely and obstinate father (Om Shivpuri). The film’s narrative is structured around a series of flashbacks narrated by Sanjay as he journeys on 27 Down, the Bombay-Varanasi Express. With a naturalistic production design by Bansi Chandragupta, a regular collaborator with Satyajit Ray, and luminous black and white cinematography by Apurba Kishore Bir for which he won a National Award, 27 Down is very much a study of loneliness, regret and indeterminacy. An existential dimension is explicated through Sanjay’s introspective voice over, used to coincide with the iconographic use of the train, here very much a symbol of Sanjay’s transient state. More communicative than the fetishisation of the railway and train is the benign romance between Sanjay and Shalini (Rakhee), depicted as an almost organic development that takes each of them by real surprise.

Although the central story about a train conductor and a young typist becomes a study of traditional and modern values, the foregrounding of the train as a key thematic shapes the tactile aesthetic sensibilities. The central character of Sanjay, a disenchanted train conductor, is someone who is born on a train, works and sleeps on a train, and falls in love on a train. Trains define Sanjay’s existence and such a prominent thematic relates to the way trains are such an integral iconographic presence in so many Indian films. In this context, the train becomes a source of refuge for Sanjay. The endless journey that a train can make and the carriages of anonymous passengers also maps an urban trajectory of loneliness for Sanjay, gradually isolating him in the train as a prisoner. Much of the semi documentary footage in the train and on the platform gives the film a realist tone that later complements the cynical decisions made by Sanjay’s father.

Conclusively, Sanjay does not know what he wants from life; he keeps asking the same questions and it is only at the end does he come to accept that his life is a cyclical diatribe of suffering from which he cannot escape. Sanjay gives up Shalini for a crippling ordinariness but it is a decision augmented by the woes of tradition and a painful generational gap that he is not courageous enough to smash.

27 DOWN will be screening on Zee Classic Sat 24 Sept at 10pm