Many a momentous twist of plot in cinema has taken place as a train winds its way past fields and forests of India. Lovers are thrown together by happy coincidence, or a leading man grows from a young boy to dashing hero in a time jump while travelling through India’s ever-changing and vast countryside. The celluloid train journey is the perfect setting for intrigue, drama, mystery, and even a side of murder. Its corridors and roof provide ample opportunity for edge-of-the-seat action. And the train song is almost a genre unto itself, with the locomotive serving as a veritable orchestra with its piercing toots and the chuk-chuk of its wheels. Here’s a selection of ten memorable films in which the Indian Railways feature.
“Mere Sapno Ki Rani” is the stuff train romances are made of. It features an exuberant Indian Air Force pilot Arun Varma (Rajesh Khanna) serenading his lady love Vandana, played by the beautiful Sharmila Tagore. She is aboard the Darjeeling toy train which gently makes its way up the mountain, puffing steam and whistling in tune with Rajesh Khanna’s melodious song. This film is one of the classics of Bollywood that earned the actor the sobriquet “king of romance.”
This movie produced what is now an iconic train song, “Chaiyya Chaiyya.” The A.R. Rahman classic quickly achieved a cult following as did Malaika Arora’s gravity-defying hip movements and Shah Rukh Khan’s trademark headbang. Filmed on the moving Nilgiri Mountain Railway, the song weaves its rhythms with the whistles and chugging wheels, and the choreography follows suit. It is hard to listen to “Chaiyya Chaiyya” without breaking into your own version of a train dance.
Shah Rukh Khan seems to love trains as they form a signature backdrop in many of his films. From Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na (1994) to Kuch Kuch Hota Hain (1998) and Chennai Express (2013), there is a train for every reel appearance of “King Khan,” be it a goofy romance, a stylish entrance with his trademark hair flick, or a key moment with his lady love. What immortalized the train romance was the sequence from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge where Kajol’s Simran runs toward her onscreen lover Raj, who’s on a train departing the platform, and their outstretched hands meet in the nick of time. The day is saved, the hero gets the girl, and the train rolls merrily into a happily ever after. The scene is supposed to be located in Punjab, but is actually shot at Apta Railway Station in Maharashtra’s Raigad district.
This Imtiaz Ali romcom starring Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor begins on a train. A depressed young man and a vivacious Punjabi girl meet on an overnight journey from Mumbai to Delhi and sparks fly, but unlike conventional Bollywood dramas, love does not follow suit. In this case, the girl saves the boy and then they go their own ways. However, a series of serendipitous and humorous mix-ups result in the duo being thrown together and eventually love blossoms.
Satyajit Ray directed this classic set on board a 24-hour train journey from Kolkata to Delhi. Ray casts Bengal’s most famous star Uttam Kumar as the hero of his piece, playing a “meta” role as a film star. He meets Sharmila Tagore, a strong-willed journalist who interviews the actor, forcing him to confront his demons. Rail elements like the changing scenery, station halts, and activities inside the first-class dining car provide the perfect foil for their conversations and the protagonist’s introspective moments.
The picturesque Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is a perennial favourite with Bollywood, thus warranting its second appearance on this list. Director Pradeep Sarkar’s period drama Parineeta has some lovely set pieces, including the song “Kasto Mazza” with Saif Ali Khan, shot aboard the Darjeeling toy train. The best part of this scene is when a bunch of apple-cheeked children sing the refrain “Kasto mazza he relaima,” meaning “What fun it is to travel by train.”
Another Satyajit Ray masterpiece which features one of the most iconic railway shots in Indian cinema is Pather Panchali. The scene is like a painting in motion, with a long shot of a steam train slowly entering the frame as the two child protagonists, Apu and his sister Durga, run through a field of wild kash phool in a village on the outskirts of Kolkata. This sequence’s magnificent play of light and shade captures the beauty of the rural setting and the children’s wonder at seeing a train for the first time.
Sadma is about the touching relationship between a school teacher, played by Kamal Hassan, and a young woman portrayed by Sridevi. Somu is a kind man who cares for Reshmi, who has suffered brain damage and amnesia after an accident. A moving scene towards the end of the movie is set on a train. Sridevi has recovered and is on her way home, though she has forgotten everything that took place post her accident, including her time spent with Somu. Hassan tries to get past the jostling crowds at Ooty station, trying to jog Sridevi’s memory by re-enacting their time together. She ignores him thinking he is a mad man, breaking his heart as well as that of a million viewers.
The train sequences in this film essay key moments in protagonist Mohan Bhargava’s understanding of his country, its people, and their problems. Bhargava’s character, played by Shah Rukh Khan, is a well-meaning NRI scientist returning to his motherland. The train’s general compartment becomes a way of bridging the distance between the city and the Indian countryside—a journey into the rural heart of India that is far removed from Bhargava’s sanitized and modern world. A little boy selling drinking water from a kettle at a station becomes a metaphor for this India that Bhargava wants to get to know and change for the better. These scenes were also shot at Apta Railway Station near Panvel, Maharashtra, a popular spot among Bollywood’s filmmakers.
This Wes Anderson comedy is set aboard a fictional luxury train that travels across India. With Rajasthan providing the real backdrop to the journey, the film captures the heat, dust, and stark beauty of the land with many stories unfolding both inside and outside the train. Added to this is Anderson’s quirky tale of three brothers on a quest to find peace and rediscover their lost bond. The film was shot on board an actual train purchased from the North Western Railways of India and redecorated for the film to suit Anderson’s signature design palette.
Appeared in the October 2016 issue as “Railway Reel”.
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.