Romancing the Railways: Hindi Cinema’s Journey With the Train

Alpana Chowdhury
·7-min read

On this day, in 1853, the first passenger train in India chugged out of Boribunder, in what was then Bombay, towards Thana. And, quite aptly, April 16 is celebrated as 'Foundation Day of Indian Railways'.

Since that historic day, the vast network of Indian trains has not just transported people from one corner of the country to the other, but also inspired many a story-writer, lyricist and filmmaker to use it as a symbol of hope, romance and freedom. Globally, too, the George Stephenson invention has been an oft-used trope in films. In fact, one of the early motion films to be made was called Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat Station, made by the Lumiere brothers in 1895. Reportedly, at its first screening, viewers screamed with fright, seeing the iron steed galloping towards them in the darkened interiors of a cinema hall!

In Hindi films, however, this popular means of travel has always enchanted viewers; with the poignant, opening scene of Manmohan Desai’s film, Chhalia being an abiding one, where the screen comes alive with a speeding train, bringing passengers from Lahore to Delhi. The character played by Nutan, who had been trapped in the communal fires of Lahore, is in this train; and as it crosses the border to enter India, her face lights up with inexplicable joy, when she catches the first glimpse of her country, where she hopes to re-unite with her family. It is a memorable scene, mirroring the hope of countless refugees who escaped to India.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Nutan's character travelling to India, in a still from 'Chhalia'</p></div>

Nutan's character travelling to India, in a still from 'Chhalia'

Off-screen, in 1943, a young graduate, Dev Anand traveled from Lahore to Bombay, by train, with dreams of becoming an actor. Dream realised, he often wooed heroines on screen with songs sung in the romantic environs of railway carriages. With Hemant Kumar lending him his voice in Solva Saal (1958), his dreamy confession, "Hai apna dil to awaara, Na jaane kis pe aayega," won viewers’ hearts, even if his pretty co-passenger scowled at his audacity. Two years later, lyricist Shailendra helped him to quibble with words, in Kala Bazaar (1960), to serenade Waheeda Rehman, with "Apni toh har aah ek toofan hai…uparwala jaankar anjaan hai".

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A still from 'Kala Bazar' wherein Waheeda rests on the 'uparwala' seat</p></div>

A still from 'Kala Bazar' wherein Waheeda rests on the 'uparwala' seat

Ostensibly referring to God as uparwala, the incorrigible actor was, in fact, complaining about the damsel sleeping on the upper berth of the coach they were travelling in. In the 1961 Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai, Anand went several steps further, by jumping out of a mini-train on to the roof of a car, to sing an earnest "O jiya o! Jiya o jiya kuch bol do," to a blushing, young Asha Parekh standing at the door of the train.

A similar romantic scene was seen in the 1969 Aradhana. Driving in a jeep on a mountain track, Rajesh Khanna belted out Mere sapnon ki raani…, clearly smitten by the dimpling beauty, reading a book, in the toy train running parallel to the road. Decades later, the intrinsic charm of a toy train was picturised again, in Parineeta, with Saif Ali Khan bursting into song with Yeh Hawaein Gun Gunayein, conveying the almost palpable feel of clean, mountain air, and the beauty of rolling tea gardens; with the whistle of the train acting as a melodious interlude. The scene brought back an era of elegant train travel.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Saif in a still from 'Parineeta'</p></div>

Saif in a still from 'Parineeta'

If the Swanand Kirkire-written Yeh Hawaein was poetry personified, the lustily-sung "Dhanon ki aankhon mein…chaand ka chumma" (Kitaab,1977) emphasised the sheer physicality of both, the singer and the power of a coal-driven train. Combining the rhythm of a train, charging through a nocturnal landscape, with the yearning of an engine driver for his beloved, the song could only have been composed and sung by the redoubtable R. D. Burman!

Romance in trains, or on top of trains in Hindi films, often symbolises a breaking free from social strictures. In Ajnabi (1974), you had Rajesh Khanna and Zeenat Aman rolling in the hay of a goods train, defiantly proclaiming, "Hum dono, do premee, duniya chod chale", with an ample display of the latter’s curves.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Rajesh Khanna and Zeenat Aman in a still from the song 'Hum Dono Do Premi'</p></div>

Rajesh Khanna and Zeenat Aman in a still from the song 'Hum Dono Do Premi'

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A still from 'Chaiyya Chaiyya'</p></div>

A still from 'Chaiyya Chaiyya'

Taking physicality a few notches higher was the Chaiyya Chaiyya song in the 1998 Dil Se, with Malaika Arora’s bosom-heaving gyrations matching the movement of the train, snaking through lush hills and dales.

Running away from her lover Rishi Kapoor, a dejected Padmini Kolhapure escapes on top of a train, in Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai. But Kapoor follows her and dances away her blues, to an endearing Hoga Tumse Pyara Kaun.

In the 2005 Bunty Aur Babli, our ever-dependable trains helped a pair of youngsters escape death by boredom in a small town, and enter an exciting world of dupery. "Choti choti sheheron se…hum toh jhola utha ke chaledhadak, dhadak, dhua udaein re…seeti bajaye re", with Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee breaking free to the energetic rhythm of speeding trains, is like the ultimate anthem of aspiring small-towners.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Stills from ‘Bunty Aur Babli’ </p></div>

Stills from ‘Bunty Aur Babli’

Jab they met, in the AC compartment of a Mumbai to Delhi train, no romantic sparks flew between Geet and Aditya; but it set them off on a crazy picaresque adventure. Jab We Met, was all about travelling light, literally and figuratively, culminating in a mini train in Simla, where the two finally confess to feelings of love. Running after trains is the leit motiv of this very entertaining 2007 film, with the title card resembling a station signboard.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A still from 'Chennai Express'</p></div>

A still from 'Chennai Express'

Chennai Express (2013) was another such caper, where the protagonists meet in the eponymous train and get drawn to each other as they keep running away from family, dons and kidnappers. As fast-paced as an express train, morals and ethics were thrown out of the train with the ticket-checker, to take crime to a typical Rohit Shetty level of entertainment.

In contrast, in an earlier era, you had an honest, hard-working middle class realising its middle-class dreams via Bombay’s packed local trains. Director Basu Chatterjee set a major part of Baton Baton Mein in the 9:10 local that his protagonists commuted in, unfailingly. Their lives were neither as exciting as Bunty and Babli’s or as poetic as that of the heroine in Pakeezah. Though the latter was a tawaif, the anonymity of a train provided her a few moments of adoration from an unknown co-traveller who wrote an ode to her feet! Could anything be more romantic than that?

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A still from 'Baton Baton Mein'</p></div>

A still from 'Baton Baton Mein'

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A still from Satyajit Ray's 'Nayak'</p></div>

A still from Satyajit Ray's 'Nayak'

There have been many more films, Hindi and regional, that have used trains as a setting for charming or crazy sequences. Some, like the Bengali film, Nayak, were entirely plotted as a train journey, pantry-car and all. Now that modernisation is painting the entire fleet with an impersonal brush of efficiency, travelling may well become more comfortable; but will train travel continue to enchant? Fortunately, we have our treasure-trove of films to hark back to, to re-romance the railways…

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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