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.

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


‘Come children, let’s play a game,
Someone comes and someone goes,
This is a game of this world,
Bell rings at every station,
Signal will be given and the flag will wave,
Then the train starts moving,
Chuk chuk chuk chuk goes the train!’

— Train Song from 27 Down (1974)


27 Down (1974) – The quintessential train film.

A cursory glance at Indian cinema over the decades is more than likely to conjure up periodic reveries of stars, songs and dance. But in the midst of a rich iconographic discourse of visually literate cinema resides the image of the train. It is an image that has remained unfailingly ubiquitous as all the other filmic signifiers. The sounds of a shrieking train, the intimacy of a train compartment, the tumult of the platform. These are some of the ineffaceable minutiae in which the train has been re-imagined for the nascent ideological, narrative and genre paradigms of Indian cinema.

It is not without coincidence one of the biggest Indian films of 2013, Chennai Express , was infatuated with the images of trains. Not just the title, but the poster, narrative and stardom of Shahrukh Khan are entwined in the iconographic motif of the train. This may seem like a patent observation except the dearth of research on the area of trains and their extrinsic relationship with the visual language of Indian cinema demands further analysis. In the simplest of terms, iconography is dominant visual imagery we associate with a particular genre. It is imagery we take for granted. Indeed, the academic discourse on Indian cinema excludes the multifarious significance of iconography. For example, The Visual Culture of Hindi Cinema (2002) by Rachel Dwyer & Divia Patel overlooks iconographic elements intrinsic to Hindi cinema such as trains. Since Indian films across different regions share a conjoint pictorial literacy, most notably narrative interruptions for song and dance spectacle, contextualizing and analysing the train is expressly apposite if we are to fully comprehend the extent of such visual grammar in communicating with a mass audience.

The train has routinely been used in Indian films to explore death (The Apu Trilogy), partition (Meghe Dhaka Tara / The Cloud Capped Star, 1960), separation (Yaadon Ki Baraat / Procession of Memories, 1973) and romance (Aradhana / Worship, 1969). I want to investigate if the ways in which Indian films have been depicted on screen can be categorised under specific thematics. Partition/displacement, love & dance, life & death, fate & justice, postmodern exchange, stardom are some of the provisional categories warranting further research. Another question arises in relation to trains as iconography: have they been used often enough to be labeled a key visual motif or convention characterising more than just one genre? Concurrently, does the image of the train appear across all Indian film genres or is it specific to a few or just one genre? A major aim of my study will be to try and reclaim the inchoate field of iconography, situating it as part of a wider lexicon of film grammar specific to the way Indian cinema constructs narrative and genre. This will be a text based study, analysing relevant sequences ranging from popular Hindi cinema to Bengali art cinema. The iconographic connotation of trains will be extended to a relationship with ideology, exploring if trains can transmit ideologies that point to both an internal logic and external real world narrative. For example, was the advent of trains in film an outcome of India’s push for modernity, and how did the train come to represent ideology cinematically?

Traditional genre theory will be critical, namely the work by Rick Altman (1999), Steve Neale (1999), Colin McArthur (1969), Ed Buscombe (1969) and Barry Keith Grant (Film Genre Readers 1 – 4; 1986 – 2012). However, applying film genre theory to Indian cinema will be done cautiously since the way we watch and analyse Indian films is radically different to Hollywood cinema. This is why traditional genre theory will be supported by an application of key writings on Indian film genres including the work of Madhava Prasad (2001), Gokulsing & Dissanayake (2004), Lalitha Gopalan (2002), Gayatri Chatterjee (2005), Rajinder Dudrah (2006) and Jigna Desai (2008).

Iconographic and ideological meanings will be considered in relation to an aesthetic (audio and visual space) examination of the way trains are presented through formal elements such as mise-en-scene and editing. A closer engagement with micro details will determine the way trains offer a visceral quality producing an on screen visual momentum while also acting as a site for narrative/thematic development. In addition to the areas outlined above, I will frame the analysis of trains against a wider consideration of changing historical contexts including the colonial era, post partition India, Nehru’s modern India and the postmodern, globalised India of today. I will conclude with a consideration of the emergence of rapid transport in India, posing the question: in what ways do recent representations of the Delhi Metro challenge and the train as a new site of contemporary urban ideological and iconographic exchange?

[This series of posts has been adapted from the dissertation I submitted as part of my Masters at the University of Manchester back in 2014. There is a lot that I couldn’t cover since the area of the train and how it has been imagined over a number of decades is quite broad and fluid. There is still a litany of recent Indian films in which the train is imagined as either part of the narrative or as a motif. And clearly there is scope to pursue further how the train is utilised in genres such as the crime/noir film. Given the limitations with most analytical studies I had to focus on certain areas at the expense of others but the idea of iconography remains very much at the heart of the study.]