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

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


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.

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.

THE SEVENTH WALK (Dir. Amit Dutta, 2013, India) – Modulations of Light & Space


In Amit Dutta’s The Seventh Walk (2013) the camera meanders, weaves and glides through a forest, replicating and distorting the gaze of New Delhi based Indian artist, Paramjit Singh. The dolly shots, evocatively staged, depict the spaces of the forest as oneiric and mysterious. There is sensuality at work in Dutta’s ghostly imagining of the forest, a metaphysical wonderland accentuated through the amplification of a rich non-diegetic soundscape. The morning birdcall, chirping crickets, the whistling wind, bells chiming are some of the sounds that Dutta switches between, imbuing the spaces of the forest with a mystical ambience. The experiential of walking through and inhabiting the forest and related spaces is tactile and sensory, while the repeated emphasis on trees, sunlight, stones, and water conjuring a hypnotic rhythm. At one point, as Paramjit sits in a room, a bottle begins to levitate, and a new realm is projected, one that replicates the subconscious. Blending the imagined work of the painter to real details of the forest, a surrealist tone leads to the materialisation of unforeseen elements such as the young girl dressed in primary yellow, and who at one point magically floats, Dutta choosing to frame this particular moment of flight with the camera fixed to a pair of knitted slippers. Imitating the detailed aesthetics of a series of paintings, the modulations of light and space and striking usage of planimetric framing emerge as a visual pattern that transforms formalist experimental preoccupations into something waywardly poetic.

Genre, Iconography & Ideology: Imaginings of the Train in Indian Cinema — Part 1: Genre Theory & Indian Cinema

The Lunchbox – the train is an ongoing iconographic motif in contemporary Indian cinema.

Determining Iconography

Before assigning the genre concept of iconography to an audio-visual study of trains a brief history of the concept is necessary. This will also mean a consideration of genre theory. Much of the work on iconography can be traced back to the field of art history and Erwin Panofsky (see Studies of Iconology: 1939) who defined iconography as concerning ‘itself with the subject matter or meanings of work of art, as opposed to their form’ (Panofsky, 1939: 3). Panofsky’s break from formal analysis to the potential connotative interpretations of art was predicated on ‘three strata’: ‘primary or natural subject matter’, ‘secondary or conventional subject matter’ (Panofsky, 1939: 5 – 7) and most importantly ‘intrinsic meaning or content’ (Panofsky, 1939: 5 – 7). If primary subject matter is about the basic formal properties whereas secondary subject matter concerns itself with narrative then the final area of intrinsic meaning is the level at which art can be viewed as a symbolic extension of a wider nexus of underlying cultural, philosophical and historical lineages. In other words, iconographic interpretation can only occur in relation to readings from the past since the imposition of subjectivity returns to individuated formal analysis.

The rise of genre theory in the early 1970s , as a counter to authorship, saw theorists including Lawrence Alloway (1971), Ed Buscombe (1970) and later Colin McArthur (1972) develop Panofsky’s idea of iconography. Such theorists were in agreement on the significance of iconography to film as ‘it emphasised the visual motifs and symbolic language of art rather than individual authorship or mythic narrative’ (Flint, 1999: 32). Buscombe decidedly emphasised ‘outer forms’ (2003: 15), identifying iconographic features such as weapons, horses, clothes, defining the western in strictly visual terms. Similarly McArthur in his study of the gangster film talked of understanding iconography conducive to ‘several decades of patterns of visual imagery’ (McArthur, 1972: 118). The limitations of iconography as an emerging genre discipline were evident in the writings of some theorists like McArthur who argued it was ‘an artificial exercise to discuss individual iconographic elements when they exist in dynamic relationship within the fabric of particular films’ (McArthur, 1972: 122). Schatz (1981) expanded on McArthur’s early self-criticisms, positing iconography should be studied in relation to a wider ideological paradigm, taking into account the way ‘a genre’s iconography reflects the value system that defines its particular cultural community’ (Schatz, 1981: 24). All of these developments were uniformly substantial, generating a new genre discourse in which iconography, as a theoretical concept was applicable to the major film genres in western cinema.

During the 1980s the first serious academic work on Indian cinema to have an impact on western misconceptions and fallacies also witnessed some of the earliest and most influential discussions on Indian film genres. This comprised the work of Rosie Thomas, Vijay Mishra, Ravi Vasudevan, Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Nasreen Munni Kabir. An essential characteristic of the visual aesthetics attributed to Indian cinema was tableau, used for ‘staging and narrating story events’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 105). Geeta Kapur (1987: 80) talks of tableau in terms of ‘frontality’ that ‘yields forms of direct address; flat, diagrammatic and simply profiled figures’ which comes out of an ‘Indian art tradition’ (Kapur, 1987: 80). Vasudevan expands on the specificities of the tableau mode arguing objects and people are ‘at a 180 plane to the camera and seem to verge on stasis, enclosing meaning within their frame’ (2010: 105 – 106). Further still Vasudevan says although ‘the codes of American continuity are also used’, ‘they are unsystematically deployed’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 106). The combination of tableau and continuity produced a visual sensibility, which in the opinion of Vasudevan made directors like Satyajit Ray complain about ‘the static feature of the commercial film’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 106). Whereas tableau was a universal art tradition, Darshan, ‘the power exercised by the authoritative image in Hindu religious culture’ (Vasudevan, 2010: 114) is a defining feature of Indian cinema specific to Hinduism. The Darshanic gaze works whereby ‘the object gives itself to be seen and in doing so, confers a privilege upon the spectator’ (1998: 75-6). Subsequently, tableau and Darshan could also be labeled iconographically conducive to popular Indian cinema but not specific to any such genres.

Rosie Thomas was one of the earliest academics to criticise the inadequacies of applying wholesale theoretical perspectives to the study of Indian cinema . Thomas ambivalently reasoned ‘Hollywood genre classification is quite inappropriate to Hindi cinema’ (Thomas. 1985: 120) and yet simultaneously genre was ‘potentially useful in opening up questions about Hindi cinema’s distinctive form’ (Thomas, 1985: 120). By refuting the claim Indian cinema was largely derivative and formulaic, Thomas placed a far greater emphasis on distinctive ‘modes of address’ concerned with articulating ‘emotion and spectacle rather than tight narrative’ (Thomas 1985: 120). Also writing in the 1980s, Vijay Mishra determined Indian film genres were a genealogical extension of Hindu mythological history , naming the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as ‘the great code of Bombay Cinema’ (Mishra, 1985: 134) and postulating Indian cinema with its ‘one dominant genre’ (Mishra, 1985: 134), the mythological. The work of Thomas and Mishra re-interpreted Indian cinema from an entirely new perspective in which the Indianness of Hindi cinema could only be measured by its relationship to a wider nexus of mythology, history and visual traditions.

The 1990s, with the proliferation of new media technologies and the rise of globalization, led to the consolidation of visual culture as a new interdisciplinary area of study. In 1998 theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff contended ‘the emergence of visual culture as a subject’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 5) contested the hegemony of ‘the spoken word as the highest form of intellectual practice’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 5). Mirzoeff’s definition of visual culture is worth framing here as it underpins many of the ways in which analysis of media and film texts is predicated on a pictorial understanding: ‘Visual culture is concerned with visual events in which information, meaning or pleasure is sought by the consumer in an interface with visual technology’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 3). For Mirzoeff the break with the past in terms of cultural studies seemed to be with the ways in which audiences interacted on a continuous basis of instantaneity with visual technology, seeking pleasure from ‘a sensual immediacy’ (Mirzoeff, 1998: 3) presented by visual events and images unfolding in a postmodern context. Mirzoeff’s re-emphasis on visual literacy and the capacity for film to communicate with audiences on strictly visual terms is chiefly imperative for the role of iconography. Undeniably a visual approach helped reclaim the study of Indian cinema from an ideological imperative to one in which the conventions and idioms of Indian film genres are inscribed in predominantly visual terms.

In 2002 Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel published ‘Cinema India: The Visual Culture of Hindi Film’, exploring ‘the visual components that constitute the very structure of Hindi film’ (Dwyer & Patel, 2002: 10) specifically stars, space, settings and costumes. Dwyer and Patel’s work reiterated the need to study Indian cinema in terms of its potent visual literacy, shifting the focus away from ideological analysis that characteristically modulated formal elements. Dwyer and Patel’s use of the term visual culture can just as easily be read as iconography. Yet their reluctance to use such a term in the context of Hindi cinema stems from connotations with genre theory conducive of western film discourse. Moreover Dwyer and Patel’s approach to the study of visual components avoids categorising iconographic elements under specific film genres. This raises an important question concerning the relationship between genre and Indian cinema that requires exploring further.

The Expanding Work on Indian Film Genres

It would be an impossibility to consider the totality of expanding scholarly work on the role of genre in Indian cinema so I want to briefly outline and consider the work of Mishra, Dudrah, Desai, Prasad and Gopalan. I feel the work of the aforementioned scholars is of particular relevance in arguing for the train as a key component of genre iconography.

Madhava Prasad speaking from an institutional perspective argues ‘generic differentiation’ (Prasad, 1998: 46) was more dominant in the post independence era since the presence of film studios cultivated a ‘distinct identity’ (Prasad, 1998: 47) to their films. This is a point sustained by Mishra’s analysis of Bombay cinema in the 1930s and 1940s: ‘If Prabhat Theatres led the way with socially oriented films, New Theatres continued to work in the romantic hero tradition’ (Mishra, 2002: 23). The emergence of ‘the social’ as a super genre, after the demise of the studio era, erased any attempts to consolidate specific genre categories. Prasad contends the lack of ‘generic differentiation’ (Prasad, 1998: 46) in Indian cinema is conductive to the way the Indian film industry operates and functions. Unlike Hollywood which is ‘marked by a high degree of internal unity’ (Prasad, 1998: 47), Prasad says Hindi cinema is contrastingly ‘marked by the relative autonomy retained by the various elements that flow into the production process’ (Prasad, 1998: 48) including songs, dialogue and stars. This indubitably testifies songs in particular are common to all films not specifically the unhelpful category of the musical genre in Bollywood cinema. In many ways, we can say the same about the presence of the train. Its repeated presence in many types of films transcends any attempts to argue for its status as a genre convention and means of categorising a film. Finally in his discussion of ‘the social’ , Prasad says it is a genre that has persisted over the years mainly because ‘its dominance attests to a certain ideological imperative that is peculiar to the modernizing Indian state’ (Prasad, 1998: 136). By drawing a link between the ideological function of cinema and the politics of the nation Prasad raises a pertinent question: in the context of the train does the iconographic serve a wider ideological obligation? Vijay Mishra takes a similar institutional approach to Prasad discussing Bombay cinema specifically in the 1930s and 1940s as a genre defined by ‘key paradigmatic features’ such as the ‘conflict between tradition and modernity’ (Mishra, 2002: 15). Mishra’s focus on the ‘big studios’ (Mishra, 2002: 17) of the 1930s and 1940s as exemplifying a distinct brand or type of film validates Prasad’s argument regarding the explicitness of ‘generic differentiation’ (Prasad, 1998: 46) and its relationship with prescient ideological concerns.

The argument that generic differentiation all but disappeared after independence because of institutional changes has seen a reversal in terms of new genre configurations in the last fifteen years. In 2001 the Indian film industry experienced its most significant institutional shift since the demise of the studio era with the Indian government finally granting industry status . Dudrah and Desai (2008: 13) argue this brought in new capital and production opportunities ‘both in and beyond India’, leading to the ‘liberalization of Indian cinema as an industry’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 13). Such a shift has seen an augmented cross fertilisation of conventions, creating distinctly innovative genre hybrids. The first of these was Mumbai Noir, fusing traditional crime/gangster elements with a noir like sensibility. Examples include Satya (Truth, 1998), Company (2002) and Sarkar (Government, 2005); all directed by Ram Gopal Verma . It is problematic to pin down whom exactly coined the term Mumbai Noir and if it really constitutes a new genre or a cycle of films. In both cases, one aspect is evident, differentiation is extenuated through elements that are repeated across many of these films occurring both aesthetically and thematically. The most obvious is the urban milieu of a Mumbai underbelly in which many of the films are set.

Gopalan echoing Prasad claims the discontinuous nature of Hindi cinema complicates the process of determining genre. In terms of creating discontinuity Gopalan says Indian popular cinema is strategised on the idea of ‘interruptions’ (Gopalan, 2002: 18). Song and dance sequences and the interval impose a non-linearity preventing the formation of fixed genres with a definitive repertoire of elements. Gopalan goes on to say that ‘the iconography of these sequences of attractions calls our attention to other interests that bolster a spectator’s interests in Indian cinema’ (Gopalan, 2002: 19). If Gopalan is referring here to the way stars, settings and dance are iconographic then it is especially relevant to the ‘attraction’ of the train as a visual spectacle not necessarily tied to any traditional sense of genre conventions. This question yet again problematises the train as strictly iconographic since its function as both attraction and ideology also exacerbates parallel consideration.

Prasad argues for the super genre of the Social that seems to encompass the breadth and domain of Indian popular cinema. Unlike the Social which as a label and means of categorising types of Indian films has lost currency, Dudrah and Desai argue for the Masala film as an on-going way of ‘understanding the genres of Bollywood cinema’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 10). In their opinion the Masala film is defined by song and dance that ‘enable and incorporate multiple forms of performance’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 11) demanding ‘more serious attention’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 11) for their plurality. A point of innovation is the way the train became a key object for song and dance sequences. Its evolution as both a spectacle and narrative device can debatably be tied to the way the Masala genre and other sub genres have evolved over time. Dudrah and Desai dismiss the notion of a super genre claiming other genres and subgenres including Mythological, Historical, Muslim Socials, Romantic films, NRI (Non Resident Indian) films and Horror films are just as important in thinking about film genres. However, they also say such categories ‘operate in a broad and connected sense’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 13). The hybridisation and ‘blending together’ (Dudrah & Desai, 2008: 13) of conventions is not specific to Indian cinema but visible in the hybridised mainstream Hollywood blockbuster film , which in essence is Masala like in its fusion of genre elements. In fact, Steve Neale, citing David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson (1985), says ‘nearly all Hollywood films were hybrids in so far as they always tended to combine one type of generic plot, a romance plot with others’ (Neale, 1990: 57). This argument returns to the myth of pure genres and by doing so reiterates the need to explore the homogeneity of the train as a multi accentual device in terms of narrative, political and representational purposes, which is what I intend to explore in the coming parts.