Something curious is happening with all of our friends. Even the ones who economise on everything are now willing to fork out an extra two or three thousand for flight tickets, just to avoid a train journey. Nobody wants the kulhar chai, nobody likes to be lulled to sleep on the top bunk and nobody likes being boxed up for 12 hours when you can instead just take a nap for two. Apart from all these casualties, Bollywood has taken note of this and drastically reduced its number of train scenes. It used to be that any blockbuster worth its salt would feature an extended train scene, whether it’s an effervescent chance meeting (like Jab We Met) or a breakneck fight scene (like Ra.One).
Now, the sweaty, urgent train scene has been replaced by the air-conditioned indifference of the in-flight sequence. I allude to the temperature not merely for metaphor: the “coolness” of the in-flight meeting reflects the shift from hot-headed outrage/anger to a more studied, deliberate cynicism; remember Saif and Rani meeting in Hum Tum? Rani, already sceptical about the philandering Saif, is icy and detached. Saif, even though he is in aggressive wooing mode, knows that a flight is no place for drama: rushing in, like a train whooshing past you on a track, is a thing of the past.
Train scenes, historically speaking, have been a most versatile tool for Bollywood. It could herald the beginning of something good — like the arrival of a beloved character — or it could mean good riddance to bad rubbish, like a rogue being sent to exile. It could mean sexual frisson, depicted through shots of steam engines, or it could mean a cold turkey farewell. In the most iconic Bollywood train sequence of them all, there is a little bit of all these elements in place: this, of course, is the climax of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Raj (Shahrukh Khan) has just been handed a royal thrashing by Kuljeet (Parmeet Sethi) and his cronies. As far as Baljit (Amrish Puri), Raj’s departure is both necessary and just. But his daughter Simran (Kajol) is in love with Raj and wants his approval of her choice. In a much-parodied scene, he relents and tells her to catch the train before it speeds away. Kuljeet has finally accepted that his daughter’s sexual freedom is a good thing and has relinquished control of her life’s speeding engines.
Train scenes, historically speaking, have been a most versatile tool for Bollywood. It could herald the beginning of something good — like the arrival of a beloved character — or it could mean good riddance to bad rubbish, like a rogue being sent to exile. It could mean sexual frisson, depicted through shots of steam engines, or it could mean a cold turkey farewell.
Trains, more than Karan Johar or Aditya Chopra, have dominated Shahrukh Khan’s career. The number of train scenes in his hit films is staggering: post DDLJ, he emerged, out of an envelope of engine smoke, in Main Hoon Na. Years before that, he gyrated with Malaika Arora Khan atop an Esselworld train for the song Chaiyya Chaiyya, featured in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se, a film where we first meet him (and the female lead, Manisha Koirala) at a train station. Ra.One sees him in an adrenaline-pumping chase sequence in a train. Chennai Express neatly inverts the DDLJ scene, perhaps the high point of a crushingly boring film. The gooiest tear-jerking scene from Veer Zara also takes place at a railway station, as does a similarly manipulative shot from Swades. (A film like Don, on the other hand, that tries a little too hard to be uber-modern, inevitably uses SRK in a dramatised mid-flight martial arts sequence)
Actually, that Swades scene tells us what the problem is: earlier, travelling via train was not only du jour, it was seen as a fun, almost communal activity. In the multiplex era, it is now seen as “slumming it”, braving a hypothetical state of squalor that upper-middle class audiences are just not comfortable with. Remember, Mohan Bhargava (Khan’s character in Swades) buys a cup of water from an emaciated child on that train journey and the experience acts as a tipping point of sorts: he is now convinced that his country is stuck in the dark ages and needs a leg up in the form of educated, Westernised youth such as himself.
The modern-day train sequence can be found in two major tropes today: the rural / working-class film (R. Rajkumar) or the period film. A notable example of the latter is Gangs of Wasseypur. In the first part of the film, we see Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) in two major train scenes, the first of which lands him in prison. Faizal is careless and stoned and he pays the price: in this context, it is vital to remember that “train chhootna” is an oft-used Bollywood metaphor for making a crucial mistake, as evidenced by Kareena Kapoor’s recurrent dreams about missing a train in Jab We Met. In the second scene, therefore, Faizal is wiser and gets away with hiding a gun (in a suitably decrepit septic tank). He is even confident enough to share a toke and a song with a merrymaking band of musicians (the song Hunter), thus doffing his hat to another erstwhile Bollywood staple: the train song.
With the rise in the number of films set in U.P. and Bihar, one hopes that directors have a few railway tricks up their sleeves as well. Because in case we are all really playing the let’s-avoid-trains-like-the-plague game, we’ll only have the movies to fall back on.