In Hindi cinema, the railways have been both the setting and the metaphor. In the 1987 film Ijaazat, a divorced couple spends a night at a railway station, laying their ghosts to rest.
In Hindi cinema, the railways have been both the setting and the metaphor. In the 1987 film Ijaazat, a divorced couple spends a night at a railway station, laying their ghosts to rest.

How trains have kept movies on track: The Way We Were by Poonam Saxena

From falling in love in a coupé to finding closure on a platform, the railways have steered cinema in memorable directions.
UPDATED ON FEB 14, 2021 06:41 AM IST

For decades and decades, the most memorable moments of love in Hindi cinema — first meetings, chance encounters, tragic farewells, epic reunions — occurred in that most mundane of Indian settings: the long-distance train.

From the time the first passenger train chugged its way from Bombay to Thane in 1853, the railways have knit the country together and opened windows to unseen parts. Toy trains circling hills and mountains, thundering express trains traversing plains, plateaus and desert — the Indian rail network is at once a mammoth entity and a vibrant character in our popular culture.

In Pakeezah, a zenana carriage allows for an intimate encounter between a forest officer and a courtesan.
In Pakeezah, a zenana carriage allows for an intimate encounter between a forest officer and a courtesan.

Over the decades, trains and railway platforms have had starring roles in love stories in film after film. A legendary example is director Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972), set in Lucknow at the turn of the 20th century. On a rainy night, forest officer Salim Khan (Raaj Kumar), clad in dashing hat and coat, jumps on to a moving train and finds himself in a wood-panelled zenana compartment (ladies’ compartments were introduced in 1870), festooned with its occupant’s elegant belongings — a delicate jug, an enamelled metal paan box. Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari), a tawaif, is asleep on the berth, her body gently swaying to the movement of the train, a half-open book of Urdu poetry beside her.

A bewitched Salim gazes at her feet, red with alta, the ankles encased in ornate payals. He slips the colourful feather which is her page marker into his pocket and leaves a poetic note that has since gone into the annals of Hindi film history: “Aapke paon dekhe, bahut haseen hai / inhe zameen par mat utaariyega / mailay ho jayenge. (I saw your feet, they are very beautiful / Don’t place them on the ground / They may get soiled.)”

This intimate encounter — chancing upon a sleeping woman, as if she were in her boudoir — couldn’t have happened anywhere but by accident on a train. And it is the trigger for the epic romance between Salim and Sahibjaan. She finds the note the next morning. And from then on, whenever she hears the whistle of a train, she goes, trance-like, to the window of her kotha, from where she can see them passing by, streaming plumes of smoke, symbolising her yearning for freedom and for the stranger she has never seen but has fallen in love with.

By the 1950s and ’60s, in a more modern, progressive India, first encounters on trains were quite different. In Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), a typically jaunty Nasir Husain romance, the hero (Shammi Kapoor) and heroine (Ameeta) meet on a train and sparks fly. He’s cocky, she’s arrogant. They meet not in a zenana bogey but in a first-class compartment that she, a single woman, shares with a stranger of the opposite sex, on a long, overnight journey. She is going home after a trip to the city; he’s on his way to a new job. Unbeknownst to them, they are both bound for the same destination and this fiery first encounter will lead to love.

The modest railway platform could be a setting for love too. In Gulzar’s Ijaazat (1987), for a poignant, lost love. Divorced couple Sudha (Rekha) and Mahinder (Naseeruddin Shah) run into each other in the waiting room of a deserted, small-town railway station on a stormy night. As the rain pours down and they sip hot tea (the eternal lifeline of train travel), they flash back to their failed relationship and marriage.

When dawn breaks, there is the melancholic farewell, as Sudha leaves with her new husband (Shashi Kapoor). But that thundery night has given them closure. In the 1980s, where else could an estranged middle-class couple meet and spend an entire night reminiscing and laying their ghosts to rest, if not at a railway station — neutral ground, a temporary stopover to onward journeys? Sudha and Mahinder part ways to the sound of a train leaving the station.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge turned the train into a symbol of both connection and freedom, with trains bookending the love story.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge turned the train into a symbol of both connection and freedom, with trains bookending the love story.

Let’s end with what has probably become the most defining moment of love involving the railways: the climax of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). Simran (Kajol) and Raj’s (Shah Rukh Khan) first meeting becomes the mirror for their cathartic reunion at the end of the film. But by the mid-1990s, we are in a globalised world, so Simran and Raj initially meet in a London station, on a train going to Europe. She’s about to miss the train but he reaches out and pulls her in. After their love story has played out over the next two hours, once again, a train is leaving the station, but this time it’s in Punjab. The distraught lovers are being separated — till Simran’s father (Amrish Puri) says the line that has gone down in film lore: “Ja Simran ja, jee le apni zindagi.”

Simran runs alongside the moving train, hair flying, and a bruised and bloodied Raj (he’s just been in a fight with her loutish fiancé) holds out his hand and hauls her in. It is a scene that has been copied, repeated and parodied countless times, and is right up there in Bollywood’s hall of fame.

I’ve merely tapped the tip of the iceberg — what are your favourite examples?

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