Flooded cities, burning trains: Poonam Saxena on the lure of cinematic disaster


Recently, I saw one of the best films I’ve watched this year, 2018, a Malayalam film about the devastating floods that hit Kerala in 2018. But it’s so much more than that. Apart from being a tense thriller, it is a moving saga of courage and sacrifice, tragedy and hope, and the human will to survive. There’s a fine ensemble cast, led by charismatic leading man Tovino Thomas.

The film 2018, starring Tovino Thomas, is a tense thriller about the floods that swept Kerala in that year. (Above right) Vinod Khanna, Jeetendra and Dharmendra in the multi-star disaster film, The Burning Train (1980). PREMIUM
The film 2018, starring Tovino Thomas, is a tense thriller about the floods that swept Kerala in that year. (Above right) Vinod Khanna, Jeetendra and Dharmendra in the multi-star disaster film, The Burning Train (1980).

Watching 2018 made me go back to Bollywood’s first disaster film, The Burning Train (1980), produced by BR Films, the grand old banner that once made path-breaking movies such as Naya Daur (1957) and Kanoon (1960). The story goes that BR Chopra’s son Ravi Chopra saw The Towering Inferno (1974) while on a trip abroad and was very taken up with the story of a fire that engulfs the world’s tallest skyscraper on its opening night. The Towering Inferno had a vast cast — Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire and many more prominent names. The film was a big hit and Ravi Chopra probably thought he could replicate its success.

The Burning Train had a similar theme – it is the opening run of India’s fastest train, Super Express, scheduled to do the Delhi-Bombay run in just 14 hours (we’re told it normally took 23 hours). But due to sabotage of the brakes (by a disgruntled employee intent on revenge) and human error, a terrible fire breaks out in the train which is now out of control, speeding down the tracks at 100 miles an hour.

Like The Towering Inferno, Ravi Chopra roped in top stars of the day such as Vinod Khanna, Parveen Babi, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Jeetendra and Neetu Singh, plus a staggering cast of supporting actors, from Simi Garewal, Asrani, Ranjeet to Rajendranath, Keshto Mukherjee, Paintal. And he got the film written by Kamleshwar, a leading light of the Hindi literary world. (Kamleshwar had gingerly stepped into the world of commercial cinema at the request of director Shakti Samanta and his first writing credits were for Samanta’s 1975 film, Amanush.)

I was curious to see who had done the special effects for the film, and found that the credits mention Paul Wurtzel and Gerry Endler of 20th Century Fox. Imdb lists Wurtzel as an assistant director and production manager on many films, but for special effects, it’s only The Burning Train. Elsewhere on the web though, he’s referred to as the head of Fox’s special effects team. Endler is mentioned on imdb as the special effects man for – among other films — Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Burning Train.

The fire rips through the coaches in The Burning Train after one-and-a-half hours into the running time of the film. Then the focus shifts from the back stories and romances to the desperate efforts to slow down the speeding train. There are moments in the movie that could only have occurred in a film made more than 40 years ago. The chief engineer of the Super Express (played by Vinod Khanna) who is not on the train but monitoring its progress, wants to send an urgent message to the trapped passengers. But how to do this? (No, there are no handy mobile phones in sight since they didn’t exist.) So he makes an emergency announcement on All India Radio, hoping that some passenger has switched on their transistor. Indeed, someone has.

There are several daring attempts to stop the train involving our three heroes hanging on the outside and inching their way towards the engine room, or stumbling through flame-filled compartments in fire-resistant suits. But inasmuch as the director is interested in these thrilling sequences, he’s also interested in how the passengers react and behave when faced with imminent death. Some give up hope entirely, some selfishly think only of themselves and in a scene straight out of Old Bollywood, a group of children travelling on the train break into a bhajan, Teri hai zameen tera aasman. The train is also a microcosm of India in that there are passengers from all religions and in heartwarming Old Bollywood style, The Burning Train ruminates on the futility of religious differences, with Rajendranath, playing a pandit, saying, ‘Maut ka na koi dharm hai na imaan’ and Yunus Parvez, playing a Muslim character, saying, ‘Maut na Hindu hai na Musalman.’

There are other inadvertent ‘period’ delights – such as lovely, traffic-free Delhi roads and women passengers carrying little red vanity cases that were so popular at the time.

If you watch it today, The Burning Train seems dated and parts of it outrightly amateurish. Neither did it, er, set the box office on fire. However, ‘disaster’ films are probably a sub-sub-genre of the action thriller. (If you’re looking for more recent examples, there’s the 2018 film, Kedarnath.)

Some movies are simply not for the ages, they are just of the age in which they were made. Watch them for documenting film history and trivia — or just for plain old nostalgia!


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