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.

Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Part 3: Romancing the Train

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Waheeda Rehman & Dev Anand in Solva Saal (1958).

Whereas the action genre has used the train intermittently, it is the musical and Bollywood romance with which it has become synonymous. By the late 1950s and early 1960s song and dance had become firmly established ‘as the primary vehicles to represent fantasy, desire and passion’ (Ganti, 2004: 81) since ‘the Indian censor board, established by the British government prior to independence, discouraged physical contact’ (Bhattacharya, 2009: 63). Filmmakers discovered increasingly innovative ways of staging songs such as the train’s iconographic transformation from action spectacle to romantic mise-en-scene. This development coincided with the emergence of new romantic heroes including Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor & Rajesh Khanna. Such heroes were regularly seen declaring their love for the leading lady in and around a moving train, allowing ‘us to experience the elaborate development of a romantic relationship in the course of a few moments’ (Hogan, 2008: 165).

Next I want to focus on some key films, analyzing song sequences in terms of form and ideology. I will cogitate the mise en scene of the train and particularly the use of ‘transgressive space’ (Dwyer & Patel, 2002: 68) in ‘negotiating the portrayal of love’ (Bhattacharya, 2009: 63). The films will include Solva Saal (Sixteenth Year, 1958), Kala Bazar (Black Market, 1960) and Aradhana (1969), epitomising the 1960s era. I will also consider the transformation of traditional imagery of romance to a sensual display in a contemporary film like Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998) demonstrated the potential of the train to ‘articulate thoughts and desires which may be inappropriate to state directly’ (Ganti, 2004: 81) such as sexuality.

Dev Anand was one of the first Indian film stars to be seen repeatedly in song sequences set on a train. In one of his earliest films Solva Saal (1958), the song ‘Hai Apna Dil To Aawara, Na Jane Kis Pe Aayega’ is used when a sly journalist Pran (Dev Anand) overhears two lovers on a train (Laaj, the love interest is played by Waheeda Rehman) are eloping with an expensive necklace. However, Laaj is unaware that her boyfriend has plans to double cross her. A song can provide ‘a wide variety of functions within a film’s narrative’ (Ganti, 2004: 80) and in this instance intervenes in a number of ways. Firstly, the song provides Dev Anand with a star entrance in which he playfully sings the lyrics to the song. Secondly, the lyrics, representing love as fickle, are used to make Laaj feel uncomfortable about her boyfriend, arousing suspicions that she harbours. Thirdly, while the train is supposed to be a means of escape for the lovers, the song complicates this idea, extenuating their guilt, and transforming the train compartment into ‘a self-contained stage for romance, seduction and crime’ (Kirby, 1997: 83).

Hogan says the song interlude ‘allows us access to the inner life of the characters’ (2008: 165) in Indian films, which is certainly the case in films like Solva Saal. Similarly in Kala Bazar (1960), black market racketeer Raghuvir (Dev Anand) sings to Alka (Waheeda Rehman) in a train cabin. ‘Apni To Har Aah Ik Toofan Hai’ (Each of my sighs is a tempest) is in the opinion of Booth a ‘disguised love song’ (Booth, 2000: 141) that uses ‘human-divine/romantic-religious ambiguity’ (Booth, 2000:141). Primarily the lyrics articulate a plea for someone who has lost their way in life: ‘Maaf Kar Banda Bhi Ek Insan Hai’ (Forgive this soul, he is human after all) but concurrently also ‘take on a suitably ambivalent meaning’ (Booth, 2000:141) aimed at an unsuspecting Alka in ‘the enforced intimacy of a four-person train compartment’ (Booth, 2000:142).

The sequence begins with Raghuvir looking outside of the window to the train compartment conveying his melancholy. In one shot, which becomes an extended metaphor for Raghuvir’s criminality, the bars from the train window cast a stark reflection across his face indicating entrapment. The use of noir aesthetics transfigures the train compartment, a public space, into an expressionistic one. In another key shot, Raghuvir is placed at the bottom of the frame on a lower berth while Alka occupies the top berth and is positioned much higher. Moreover, Alka is shot using high key lighting (projecting her angelic status) whereas Raghuvir is in low key (extenuating a darkness). This seemingly simplistic divide in terms of spatial arrangement and lighting accentuates the actuality of a wider social estrangement, hinting romantic union is impossible. The resignation experienced by Raghuvir is confirmed in a later shot. This time Raghuvir situated in a tight composition from outside the window of the train, the bars graphically imprisoning him, makes him appear like a prisoner of his own dreams. By also including Alka’s parents in the same compartment complicates the conventional romantic perceptions of the sequence. Booth (2000:141) poses the question: ‘Is it a completely unacceptable flirtatious song sung by a complete stranger to the daughter of respectable family?’ thereby noting the song’s faculty to disrupt social norms.

In the cases of Solva Saal and Kala Bazar the train as a site of romance is portrayed incongruently. Some of this ambivalence can be ascribed to the unconventional acting style of Dev Anand who used ‘deliberately awkward pastiches’ (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 1994: 42) invoking Hollywood actors like ‘Gregory Peck’ and ‘Cary Grant’ (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 1994: 42). The same cannot be said for Rajesh Khanna who in the 1960s along with Shammi Kapoor brought a new modernist vigor to the image of the doomed romantic lover. This is best exemplified in the song ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani’ (The Queen of my Dreams) from Aradhana (1969), fusing iconographic associations of the train with the musical romance. The song sees Arun (Rajesh Khanna) in an open-air jeep serenading Vandana (Sharmila Tagore) who is on a train. Vandana who is in prison recalling her time with Arun initiates the song. Since the first image she remembers is a train reiterates the effectiveness of the train as an instrument for escape and fantasy. While the song is used as a framing device, establishing the romance between Arun (Rajesh Khanna) and Vandana (Sharmila Tagore), the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, also known as the ‘Toy Train’ is in fact the star attraction.

Frequent interruptions in the song, extenuating the iconic significance of the ‘Toy Train’ becomes a celebration of a specific Indian train heritage tied up in a colonial history of Darjeeling as a retreat for the British Empire. At key points in the song, the musical composition takes over, mirroring the rhythmic actions of the train. The personification of the train is taken to its very extreme when at one point we see a series of shots foregrounding a romantic, nostalgic affection for the train recalling British cinema’s ‘special relationship’ with ‘the steam engine’ (Leppla, 2003). This includes exterior shots of the train, the conductor blowing the whistle, the railway line and the train making its way across the hilly terrain. Fetishised train imagery celebrating the idiosyncrasies of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway inspired films like The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Barfi (2012) and Parineeta (The Married Woman, 2005). Aradhana ‘helped set the pattern for 70s entertainment cinema’ (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 1994: 42) and the number of romantic songs that subsequently revolved around the train are too numerous to list.

As a way of exploring the relationship between the musical romance and the train in a more contemporary context I lastly want to concentrate on the ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ (Walk in Shade) song from Dil Se (From the Heart, 1998). The song is instigated by a preliminary encounter between Meghna (Manisha Koirala) and Amar (Shahrukh Khan) who are waiting for a train on a solitary platform. Amar is instantly attracted to Meghna. She sends Amar to get her some tea. He rushes back only to see Meghna has boarded the train. This segues into ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’, manifesting Amar’s love for Meghna. In terms of narrative, the song traces Amar’s journey to Assam. Whereas the initial encounter at the train platform draws on traditional genre expectations of romance and trains, the picturisation of the song on Malaika Arora and Shahrukh Khan dancing flirtatiously produces a sexual frisson eroticizing the train ride. This in many respects confounds iconographic associations of the train as a site for orthodox, conservative representations of romance. Instead, the hybridity of A. R. Rahman’s music complements the visceral energy of the train, which is constantly in motion, surging forward, taking on a sexual personification reciprocating the sensual choreography. If the lyrics of the song metaphorically envisage the romantic longings of Amar then his undying quest to find Meghna is epitomised by the uninterrupted train ride, pointing to an obsessive love that will manifest much later.

Anna Morcom (2011: 168) contends eroticism in the Hindi film song ‘continues an ancient tradition of public female performance in India as seduction and erotic entertainment dating back to courtesans’. ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ also amplifies the sexuality of the item girl in an ‘openly erotic display’ (Morcom, 2011: 169) of the female body. Though, it is not only the female body that is objectified. Lalitha Gopalan says the song articulates ‘the sexual exuberance of the male protagonist’ (2002: 134), undermining efforts to read the song exclusively as part of the male gaze. Whereas the song’s sexualisation of the train in terms of iconography seems modern, the spectacle of the train journey echoes that of ‘Mere Sapno Ki Rani’. Like Darjeeling, Otty is represented via the train making its way through the hillside scenery. This stresses the meaning of the train as an interjecting narrative device, bridging the continual alterations between fantasy and reality.

Conceivably among all of the iconographic variations and meanings of the train, romance and love remain closely affiliated with audience expectations, as we know the train, as an exponent of traditional romance is not culturally specific to Indian cinema. Films like Brief Encounter (1945) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) testifies the image of the train as an expression of romance, love and tragedy is one that will remain principally connected to our cinematic consciousness. In the next part, the focus will shift to Ray and alternative Indian cinema of the 1950s and 1960s.

Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema – Part 2: The Train as Action Spectacle

 

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A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899)

French film critic Dominique Noguez suggests that perhaps no form of transport has haunted the history of cinema as much as the train’.                                                                                                            –Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema, 1997

The history of the railway and train predates the first feature film in Indian cinema by at least forty years. The first passenger rail service opened in 1853 from Bombay to Thane. If the railway system heralded modernity national leaders initially perceived it ‘as an extension of Western imperialism’ (Kirby, 1997:5) and projection of British colonial rule, developed accordingly to suit ‘business interests in England’ (Nock, 1978: 8). During the push for independence the railway transpired as a ‘sign of an independent, industrialized nation’ (Aguiar, 2011: 101). Indeed a filmic beguilement with the train was not limited exclusively to India, finding an earlier aesthetic and technological imperative in silent cinema. In a single, unbroken take lasting for 50 seconds, the Lumiere brothers created history. L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat / The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (Lumieres, 1896) is about observational and actuality. We see a train in the distance, it stops at a station, and passengers disembark onto the platform. Such a trivial yet historical moment in announcing the train, an inherent image of film, would fuel the imagination of directors for years to come. While at first the train was a formidable spectacle, it soon grew into a narrative and thematic constituent. The invention of the ‘phantom ride’ (Cousins, 2011: 25) as a ‘new visual experience for the audience’ (Cousins, 2011: 25), created by placing a camera at the front of a train, produced a ghostly effect in films such as A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899). This short film ‘featured a stolen kiss aboard a carriage car’ (Leppla, 2003), introducing romance to the train; an association that would become distinctive to Indian cinema.

For filmmakers searching to attract audiences the phantom ride produced movement essential to the evolution of a visual grammar. Accordingly, the early fascination with the train was also due to its technological function, prefiguring the invention of the dolly. Above all, the phantom ride ‘would become one of cinema’s most effective ways of putting the audience in the place of a traveller’ (Cousins, 2011: 26). None of this was lost on Indian cinema. The train journey, a visual compression of space and time, offered audiences an imaginary mobility, turning them into virtual travellers in a nation interconnected by its railways and trains. This coincided with the emergence of ‘one of the great genres of early cinema, the travel genre’ (Kirby, 1997: 41). Similarly, the 1910s and 1920s beheld the train as a technological tool for filmmakers, participating in the realisation of travelogues, ‘developed from its roots in simple actuality’ (Stewart, 2003). Kirby reasons by the 1920s ‘many experimental European films returned to the train as a terrifying vehicle of speed and a dynamic technology capable of representing film’s own power’ (Kirby, 1997: 8). La Roue (The Wheel, 1923) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929) ‘celebrated modernity as a liberating force’ (Kirby, 1997: 9).

Indian cinema between 1910 and 1930 has not been sufficiently researched so the history of Indian film in the silent era is an allusive one, limiting my attempts to trace an accurate historiography of the train in Indian cinema. Films made in Europe and America during the silent era, as the ones pointed out by Kirby, tell us that similar creative experimentations may have occurred in Indian cinema at the time. It was not until the 1930s with the rise of major film studios did the train become more prominent in Indian cinema. For example Jawani Ki Hawa / The Wind of Youth (Bombay Talkies, 1935), Vilasi Ishwar / Orphans of the Storm (Kolhapur Cinetone, 1935), Achhut Kanya / The Untouchable Girl (Bombay Talkies, 1936) and Manzil / Destination (New Theatres, 1936) to name a few all featured the train as either a decorative, perfunctory part of the mise en scene or as an integral narrative/thematic device.

nadia

Fearless Nadia.

New horizons for the train also led to a cycle of train films in the mid 1930s produced by Wadia Movietone. Fearless Nadia, one of India’s first female heroines, was the star attraction. This cycle of films used the train to stage spectacular action sequences to ‘show off film’s power of registration, its ability to capture movement and speed’ (Kirby, 1997: 20). The train was also a chiefly boyish object. In fact, equating masculinity with the railway ‘from around 1880 to World War I’ (Kirby, 1997: 78) occurred culturally since ‘advertisements for model trains were addressed to male fantasies and aspirations’ (Kirby, 1997: 78). The image of a strong Indian woman like Nadia ‘running triumphantly along the tops of trains, fist fighting her male tormentors’ (Thomas, 2005: 45) reversed gender expectations so the female heroine ‘was unambiguously in control’ (Thomas, 2005: 56) of the narrative. Thomas goes on to say that audiences interpreted the Nadia stunt films as ‘anti-British allegories’ (Thomas, 2005: 50) implying the train was used to explore not only gender such as ‘women’s emancipation’ (Thomas, 2005: 46) but also wider political issues like the struggle for freedom. Even so Vitali (2008: 93) contends the train in these stunt films expressing ‘industrial modernity as a positively desirable horizon’ contradicts dominant anti-colonialist readings.

If industrial modernity was a desire articulated through the female character as a ‘diegetic manifestation’ (Vitali, 2008: 93) what made a film like Miss Frontier Mail (1936) significant was not its radical ideological mode of address but the capacity to use the train for rhythmic, spatial and narrative purposes: ‘The task at hand in Miss Frontier Mall…was to break continuous space, to convey a sense of movement in the place. Recurring images of a train moving across the landscape and the frame or towards the camera at great speed do precisely that’ (Vitali, 2008: 107). As a multiple and pluralistic construction the train would steadily transmute into an inclusive cultural cinematic mode, transcending the restrictive labels of ‘motifs’ and ‘symbols’, finally becoming something more iconographically substantial.

The association of the train with the action film in Indian cinema can also be traced to the Hollywood Western. Intriguingly one of Indian cinema’s most celebrated films Sholay (1975) is ‘founded on the knowledge that the daku (dacoit) film has several characteristics in common with the western’ (Raghavendra, 2006: 38) and opens with an audacious set piece involving a group of bandits, two ‘rootless mercenaries’ (Gopalan, 2009: 166) – Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra), and a steam locomotive. Prasad (1998: 156) seems convinced the primary ‘narrative material’ for Sholay were ‘spaghetti westerns’. This complicates the genre status of Sholay and underlines the problems with trying to categorise Indian films according to typage. Remarkably, the first shot of Sholay is a train arriving at a station, a key image of the western explicitly announcing the genre status of the film but also recalling the birth of cinema.

Nonetheless, many writers are in agreement Khotey Sikkay (1974) has been overlooked as a key influence on Sholay. In fact Prasad contends Khotey Sikkay was part of a sub genre of ‘cheaply made films’ appearing before Sholay that ‘re-duplicated the cultural status of the spaghetti western’ (1998: 156). Prasad’s final point on the ‘enthusiasm of proletarian audiences’ (1998: 156) who helped popularise the sub genre of Indian westerns underlines a common assertion that low genres particularly sub-genres are watched largely by working class audiences. This link between film genres and audiences is expressly important in arguing the iconography of the train indiscriminately cuts across the spectrum of Indian cinema including genres, cinemas and film styles. This is a point I will explore further when I look at the use of trains in the cinema of Satyajit Ray.

Sholay 1

The opening to Sholay is marked by the arrival of a train at a station.

Unlike the Nadia stunt films, in the context of the Angry Young Man film and the Masala film, in Sholay the train is re-gendered in traditional terms whereby its stoicism is conflated with the machismo of a familiar brand of male heroism. The train itself is predominantly framed using wide shots to exemplify a prowess as it surges forward in the sequence while the rhythmical editing projects the spectacle of the train as one of invincibility. Nevertheless, the clash is very elemental. The train denotes accelerated modernity whereas the bandits on horseback stand for a traditional feudal ideology. At one point in the sequence the speed of the train is too fast for the bandits who abandon their horses and board the train. This can be interpreted ideologically since the bandits are forced to surrender a way of life in which there is no negotiation or equilibrium between the forces of tradition and modernity. In the Hollywood western ‘the progress and modernity of the railroad came to stand for American progress’ (Kirby, 1997: 201) which is equally applicable to the train’s enunciation of India’s progress in terms of industrialization.

Once on board the train the bandits come up against the ingenuity of Jai and Veeru. By using the train, Jai and Veeru outsmart the bandits, proving their sensibilities are in synch with an emerging modernist attitude. More pointedly the train as a metonym of industrial modernity is underlined by the bandits’ failure to capture and de-rail the train commenting on the way progress and change is both inevitable and unstoppable. An alternate reading of the bandits’ incursion can be drawn here. Recalling a familiar narrative situation, ‘the image of barbaric Indians attacking a beleaguered train of white people’ (Kirby, 1997: 206) often found in the Hollywood western, the bandits’ in Sholay situated as the ‘Other’ draws comparisons with hegemonic representations of Native Americans ‘as savages impending American civilization’ (Kirby, 1997: 206). Just as ‘the railroads played a central role in helping push Native peoples of their lands’ (Kirby, 1997: 206), the bandits’ attack on the train, a symbol of modernist oppression, can be viewed as a form of collective resistance and struggle to protect an identity under threat from capitalist expansionism. In many ways, the intervention of actors Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan is particularly instructive as their modernist star image works in parallel with their role as social agents in the narrative of Sholay.

Raghavendra reiterates Gopalan’s argument concerning the ‘episodic nature of Indian popular cinema’ (2006: 41). The opening train sequence is a case in point as it forms one of many set pieces in what Raghavendra terms a ‘conglomerate’ (2006: 41) narrative structure. He also argues Sholay departs from classical notions of genre expectations since ‘each sub-narrative has its own climax and resolution’ (2006: 41) unlike Hollywood films which have continuous, unifying narrative strands that are typically met with closure at the end. Raghavendra’s proposition that sub-narratives are self-contained and have tenuous links with each other certainly reinforces the schizophrenic, cross-pollinating nature of Indian film genres. However, after Jai and Veeru have helped Thakur overcome the bandits they take a decision, tossing a coin, not to escape. It is a decision, which in terms of resolution is not self-contained but has an impact in terms of narrative causality on Thakur, only becoming apparent much later.

Both the Fearless Nadia stunt films and Sholay delineated the train as part of a wider action aesthetic that remained a preoccupation into the 1980s and 1990s. The Burning Train (1980), a film in which a super express train catches fire, exemplified this trend, fusing conventions of the Hollywood disaster film (The Towering Inferno, 1974) with Bollywood melodrama. The poster to the film showed the potent image of a burning train, a signifier of action spectacle, juxtaposed to an ensemble cast including Dharmendra and Hema Malini. The narrative unfolds on a train evoking the claustrophobic atmosphere of Hollywood and British murder mystery thrillers made in the 1930s like The Lady Vanishes (1938).

I want to conclude my focus on the train as a spectacle in the action genre, analysing the opening to Dhoom 2 (2006). Dhoom 2 is part of an ongoing franchise of action films that have been popular with audiences. Released in 2006, the opening to Dhoom 2 is a postmodern fusion of intertexts relying on a ‘combination of digital manipulation and jump cuts’ (Vitali, 2008: 240). This accelerated metatextual hyper action cinema has become a dominant form in Indian cinema. In the opening to Dhoom 2 filmic references range from the Fearless Nadia stunt films to James Bond. The sequence takes place in the Namibia desert, framing the action in a globalised context, reiterating a familiar international aesthetic of many Yash Raj films. The opening theft of jewels by super thief, Mr. A (Hrithik Roshan), from a wealthy, old English lady (The Queen) conceals a compendious, prescient postcolonial ideological subtext about the British crown jewels.

India’s repeated calls for Britain to repatriate jewels plundered as ‘part of Britain’s war treasure’ (Ghoshray, 2007: 748) particularly the Kooh-i-Noor (The Mountain of Light) diamond, ‘regarded as the greatest treasure in India’ (Singh, 2006), becomes a site for national reimagining. India reclaiming the jewels by force and indirectly a stolen history is re-enacted by the stylised intervention of Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan. In the guise of popular entertainment, the train conceals a wider ideological function, recalling Fearless Nadia in the context of her colonial films. After Mr. A has stolen the jewels, he fights bodyguards, culminating in a moment of hyperbole that sees him surfing sand dunes outside the train while dodging bullets. If this hyperbolic action cinema interrupts the narrative flow then the train’s movement forwards ensures the spectacle of action is logically sustained for audiences.

The neo-colonial allegorical reading of India as a globalised nation defending its dignity while making amends for a stolen history is made doubly explicit by staging the action on a train which during the colonial era was viewed as an extension of British imperial rule. By re-appropriating the train, outsmarting the guards and stealing the jewels, conflates the iconographic with the ideological, positing the train as a cathartic outlet for contemporary neo-colonial anxieties. In yet another moment of filmic subversion the image of James Bond, invoked by the parachute jump that kick starts the film, as a white British imperialist is inverted by the casting of Hrithik Roshan, a new type of muscular hard-bodied Bollywood action hero representing the new globalized diasporic India. Since the sequence takes place in Africa suggests the NRI Indian can be anywhere and everywhere. The fusion of such cinematic styles, idioms and conventions reaches back to the super genre category of the Masala film but does so in way that sees Bollywood telling the world it can also succeed at mixing postmodern cinematic address with an intriguing ideological subtext. In the next part in this series, I turn my attention to the ways in which romance and the train have become a perpetual idea in popular Indian cinema.