Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Part 6: Stardom and the Train – Shahrukh Khan

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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.]

 

CFP: Sholay at 45 – A one day symposium at Birmingham City University (UK), 8 April 2020

sholay

Call for Papers

8 April 2020, Birmingham City University, UK

August 2020 will mark 45 years of the film Sholay/Embers (1975). Written by Salim-Javed, produced by G.P. Sippy and directed by Ramesh Sippy, it is arguably one of the most popular films of modern Hindi cinema. In almost any audience or industry list of “What is your Top 10 favourite Bollywood film of all time?” Sholay is invariably in the Top 3, if not in the number one position. Made and released during a turbulent time in Indian politics – alleged State corruption and violence, curbing of freedom of the Press, food, fuel and labour shortages, communal tensions, leading to the controversial Emergency declared by then Indian PM Indira Gandhi – the film mixes a range of genres in its overarching masala blend. From action, to melodrama, romance, to spaghetti western, the film is set in a fictitious village where two outlaws are hired, Jai and Veeru, to enact out a revenge story against the bandit Gabbar Singh. To mark the ongoing popularity and fascination of this film with audiences around the world, the journal of South Asian Popular Culture will be hosting a one day symposium to critically assess and celebrate Sholay during its 45th milestone. Papers presented at the symposium will be invited to be developed as peer reviewed articles or Working Notes entries for a special issue of the journal to be published in 2021.

We invite a range of presentations from contemporary film, media and cultural studies perspectives, including and not limited to:

• Sholay’s Indian, diasporic, transnational, and global travels
• Sholay trivia, cinephilia and fandom
• The cinematic language of Sholay (e.g. camerawork, mise-en-scene, editing, sound, writing, dialogue and performances)
• Sholay and Representation (e.g. of the nation, banditry, secularism, retribution, gender and sexuality, bromance, law and order)
• Teaching Sholay
• Sholay spin-offs, subcultures and remakes
• Sholay and new media assemblages
• Intertextuality and Sholay
• Sholay’s songs, dance and musicality
• The Stars of Sholay
• Sholay and popular Indian cinema history

250-300 words Abstract Deadline: 30 November 2019. Please include an additional 75 words author/s biography with your abstract. Successful participants will be notified of acceptance by early January 2020.

There will be a small conference registration fee. Morning teas and coffees, lunch and light refreshments will be provided on the day. Accommodation, if required, is to be arranged by the selected delegates themselves and a hotel list will be made available near to the BCU city centre campus.

To discuss your submission please contact the Co-Editors of this venture:

Professor Rajinder Dudrah – Rajinder.Dudrah@bcu.ac.uk

Dr Omar Ahmed – oahmed5@gmail.com

SAPC journal website: https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rsap20/current

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

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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.

 

Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Part 4: The Auteur and the Train – Satyajit Ray & The Apu Trilogy

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The magical appearance of the train in Pather Panchali

So far my focus has been on Hindi cinema. I next want to turn my attention to Indian art cinema or alternative cinema, a genre unto itself, and the films of Satyajit Ray. Alloway’s view that ‘treating movies as personal expression and autobiographic testament has led to the neglect of the iconographical approach’ (Alloway, 1963: 4) strikes a chord since preponderance for the authorial approach is at the expense of formal properties of film genres. So what of iconography and its role in the films of Indian auteurs? In many ways, Ray is the perfect candidate. His status in the west as an auteur par excellence has ensued mainly at the expense of genre considerations.

Focusing on the work of Ray will make plain the divisions between popular Hindi cinema and art cinema are unhelpful, arbitrary markers of taste as the iconography of the train is an inclusive visual signifier. Furthermore, a brief analysis of the role played by the train in the films of Ray will debate Alloway’s claim that ‘the degree of personal expression’ (Alloway, 1963: 4) seen in auteur films can ‘only be determined after a consideration of the extent to which these films are iconographically normal or unusual’ (Alloway, 1963: 4). This is a question I hope to return to at the end. Ray used the train in many of his films but I will limit my analysis to The Apu trilogy since Robinson notes: ‘The sights and sounds of railway trains are the woof of the Trilogy, drawing it together into an epic work’ (Robinson, 2004: 102). The Apu trilogy is based on two novels by Bengali writer Bibhutibhusan Banerji: Pather Panchali & Aparajito that ‘tells the story of a Brahmin family in their ancestral village in Bengal’ (Raghavendra, 2009: 57) unfolding across a trilogy of films detailing the journey of Apu from a boy into a man.

Pather Panchali, the first film in The Apu trilogy, features one of the most celebrated depictions of the train. The sequence sees Apu and his sister Durga playing in a field of white kaash flowers when they unexpectedly come across a train. The first sighting of the train is at a distance via ‘clouds of smoke above the sea of white flowers’, (Ray, 1985: 41) presenting the train as an ostensibly invisible ‘symbol of the modern world cutting upon village life’ (Seton, 2003: 81). More importantly, since events in the film largely unfold through the point of view of the two children, the train is also represented as a magical object, emerging from the imagination of Apu. Once the children run after the train, the idyllic tone changes to one of uncertainty. As the train passes Apu, Ray cuts to the other side of the tracks so the train fills the frame, rushing past Apu so we only see fragments of him. Richard Allen labels this intrusive cut as ‘one of sharp disjuncture’ (Allen, 2009: 95) that marks a ‘radical shift’ (Allen, 2009: 95) in Apu’s relationship to the ‘environment that modernity brings’ (Allen, 2009: 95). As a metonym of modernity the train overwhelms Apu. This is reflected aurally on the soundtrack with the discordant sounds of the train punctuating the stillness of the pastoral landscape. Finally as Apu looks off into the distance traces of smoke from the train linger in the air.

Since all of this occurs from the perspective of Apu posits the train as a disruptive force, interrupting the natural flow of rural India life. By juxtaposing Apu and Durga’s sighting of the train (their first glimpse of a new modern India) to the death of Indir, their elderly aunt, establishes an elemental, defining conflict between tradition and modernity. In light of this juxtaposition, the train also becomes a harbinger of death, a motif constant through the trilogy. If we read the train as expressive of modernity ‘anticipating Apu’s future’ (Allen, 2009: 92) then Indir’s death can be viewed as the loss of tradition. Note that the death of Indir follows the sighting of the train. Symbolically the train racing through the landscape can be interpreted as carrying away the spirit of Indir, portending her looming demise. In The Apu trilogy the train is less of a traditional spectacle and more of a thematic presence.

In the second film Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) Ray uses the train as a connection between Apu and his mother Sarbajaya. When Apu’s father dies Sarbajaya returns to the village with Apu. Later when Apu receives a scholarship to study in Calcutta he has to leave the village for the city. His transient state, shifting between the city and village is conveyed by numerous train journeys. Sarbajaya, increasingly lonely in the village, misses Apu, anticipating his arrival by the sound of the train whistle. By associating the train with Apu’s transient state fulfills a dual purpose; firstly acting as a narrative device and secondly functioning as a painful psychological connection reminding Sarbajaya of her loss and Apu’s absence. Similarly like Pather Panchali in which the train passing through the rural landscape prefigures the death of Indir, the train’s presence is noted aurally on the soundtrack before Sarbajaya’s death. Allen argues in Pather Panchali ‘the most evocative use of offscreen sound is reserved for the presence of the train whistle’ (Allen, 2009: 92), a sound that Sarbajaya hears repeatedly. It is at this point in Aparajito the train as a harbinger of death becomes firmly established as iconographically specific to the Apu films, embodying a set of expectations related to life, death and the inevitability of change.

The last sequence I want to explore is from the final film in the trilogy; Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959). Now married, Apu lives near a railway yard so the sound of trains is constant in the background, providing a perpetual relation to his childhood. Ray says, ‘I thought I would take away the lyrical element of the train and have the couple live right on the railway track’ (Robinson, 2004: 102). When Apu is told the news about his wife’s death the trauma leads to a suicide attempt. Ray’s screenplay describes the sequence as follows: ‘Apu stands beside the railway tracks as a train approaches. A veil of smoke drifts towards him as he lowers his eyes in despair, unable to take the final plunge’ (Ray, 1985: 133). The train’s connection with death has been etched into consciousness of Apu from his childhood since the discovery of the train was juxtaposed to the death of Indir. The third film inverts the train as a symbol of modernity, as it can no longer be equated with progress, the future or change, as it becomes a source of severance, disjuncture and death. Yet Ray repeats the motif of the train as a harbinger of death, pushing this idea to its extreme when ‘the train rushes past, leaving behind a dead pig on the tracks’ (Ray, 1985: 133). The dead pig reminds Apu of the way death strikes suddenly. More knowingly, Apu’s despair is bound up in a history of loss, paralyzing him .

From the sequences I have looked at so far Ray’s view of the train is ambivalent, shifting from childlike curiosity and an emerging modernity to a more critical position in which the audio-visual representation of the train becomes bound up in the imagery of death. Ideologically, by the time we reach Apur Sansar the train is accepted as part of Apu’s life. Even in Pather Panchali, Apu’s first encounter with the train is depicted sceptically. In this context Ray’s attitude to the train changes over the course of the trilogy, offering a personal insight into his own anxieties regarding modernity and its impact on tradition. Ray often returned to the train in his films including most noticeably with Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962) and Nayak (The Hero, 1966). Whereas Abhijan saw Ray disillusioned with the train, Nayak uses the train journey as a narrative device to detail the recollections of a film star who takes the train from Calcutta to New Delhi.

I opened with Alloway’s proposition that only after considering the extent to which films are ‘iconographically normal or unusual’ (Alloway, 1963: 4) can we determine the level of authorial expression. Ray uses the train in The Apu trilogy to delineate many themes notably modernity and in this context it is ‘normal’ when compared to popular Indian cinema since they are both trying to convey the impact of modernity. What separates Ray’s use of the train from other filmmakers is the ‘unusual’ formal treatment, relying on realism (deep focus cinematography, naturalistic sound) that could be deemed as more authorial and less iconographic.