The shrill whistle, the rhythm of the clacking wheels, the rushing wind… What would Hindi films be without the magic of trains? There’s something about rail journeys that make it the perfect setting for romance. And not just love but even darker stuff like drama, mystery and more! Today, the 165th anniversary of that first passenger train which ran between Bori Bunder (CSMT) and Thane in India, reminds us of all the many times trains have powered our imagination and our films.

What could embody romance better than that iconic line – “Aapke paon dekhe, bahut haseen hai. Inhe zameen par mat utariyega, maile ho jayenge.” These are the dreamy words written in the note that a handsome stranger (Raj Kumar) leaves for Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) when he enters her train compartment. It is this anonymous missive that gives Sahibjaan, a courtesan who ‘dirties’ her feet every night as she dances before men, hope and motivates her to avoids the unwelcome attention of her patrons in Pakeezah.

A speedy, puffing train is our first proper introduction to the iconic Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra) in the thrilling train sequence in Sholay. Both are convicts being transported to jail by Thakur Baldev Singh, when their freight train is attacked by dacoits. The sequence was shot on the Mumbai-Pune track near Panvel and was reportedly inspired by the 1939 Hollywood movie, Stagecoach. It did a fabulous job of portraying the daring of the twin heroes pursued by an unending troop of armed horsemen.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is unforgettable today for its climax scene where Chaudhry Baldev Singh (Amrish Puri) finally relents and tells his daughter (Kajol), “Ja Simran jee le apni zindagi!” Her race to catch the train that’s pulling out of the platform and grab her lover Raj (Shah Rukh)’s outstretched hand, is the stuff dreams are made of!

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If DDLJ ended with the train taking the lovers to their future together, it was on a train – Chennai Express – that Rahul Mithaiwala (Shah Rukh Khan), meets the love of his life. Accidentally boarding the eponymous train from Mumbai to Rameswaram, he ends up falling in love with the daughter of a local don, played by Deepika Padukone.

Even more romantic was Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met. It told the story of the feisty Punjabi girl (Kareena) who bumps into a depressed Mumbai businessman (Shahid Kapoor) on an overnight train to Delhi. While attempting to get him back on board when he alights at a station stop, both are left stranded in the middle of nowhere. Having walked out of his corporate business after being dumped by his girlfriend, the man has no destination in mind, until the girl forces him to accompany her back home and then on to elope with her secret boyfriend.

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Of course, it’s not always love and romance on a rail journey. The Burning Train revolved around a train named the Super Express, which catches fire on its inaugural run from New Delhi to Mumbai. Needless to add, that was one thrilling trip involving Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna, Parveen Babi, Jeetendra, Neetu Singh, Vinod Mehra and Danny Denzongpa.

It was during the course of a train journey in a general compartment that NRI Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh) developed an understanding of his country, its people, and their problems. It spurs his decision to make their lives better, as portrayed in the film Swades.
And sometimes a departing train also announces heartbreak like nothing else can.

It’s difficult to stay unmoved by the climax scene in Sadma, where Reshmi (Sridevi) recovers her memory and is seated on a train in Ooty, even as Somu (Kamal Haasan), who has cared for her after her accident, desperately tries to jog her memory. She is polite but blank and as the train pulls out, his heart breaks into smithereens.

Trains have also formed the ideal backdrop for songs, both glad and sad. Shah Rukh Khan was the lucky one dancing atop a train alongside the luscious Malaika Arora, to the notes of ‘Chhaiya Chhaiya’. Filmed on top of the Ooty train (the Nilgiri Mountain Railway) in mountainous Tamil Nadu, in the south of India, this song from Dil Se remains a favourite to this day.

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In Parineeta, we were treated to the charms of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, as Saif Ali Khan rode aboard the adorable toy train. ‘Kasto mazza he relaima…’ went the chorus, and indeed it was ‘great fun to travel by train’!

The Darjeeling toy train had also featured in the ever-popular song ‘Mere sapno ki rani…’  (Aradhana), as Indian Air Force pilot Arun Varma (Rajesh Khanna) wooed his beautiful love interest Vandana (Sharmila Tagore) from his jeep, as she travelled on board the train.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Aashirwad gave us the rap-like ‘Rail gaadi…’ number, rendered by Ashok Kumar. “Rail gaadi rail gaadi, Chhuk chhuk chhuk chhuk, Chhuk chhuk chhuk chhuk. Beech waale station bolen, Ruk ruk ruk ruk, Ruk ruk ruk ruk…” went the lyrics, loved by kids and grownups alike.

The shovelling of the coal, the hoot of the whistle were brought to celluloid with the song ‘Dhano ki ankhon mein…’ in Kitaab, a film written and directed by Gulzar. ‘Hoga tumse pyara kaun…’ sings a chirpy Rishi Kapoor as he serenades his girl aboard a train in Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai. It’s Rishi again, but in drag, getting close to his sweetheart Neetu Singh as he sings and dances in his mini skirt to ‘Chuk chuk chak chak Bombay se Baroda tak…’ in Rafoo Chakkar.

On a more sombre note, it is a lonely train journey that echoes the sadness of Rajesh Khanna in Aap Ki Kasam. ‘Zindagi ke safar mein…’ perfectly described the hopelessness of a man who doubts his wife’s fidelity and ends up losing all that was precious to him.

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At the end of the day, nevermind the conveniences and comforts of air travel, our heart – like Dharmendra’s in Dost – can’t help respond to the call of the train, the sound of the whistle… ‘Gaadi bula rahi hai…’

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