The February 24 releases Lion and Rangoon have one common link: the Indian Railways.

The appearance of trains in films has come a long way since The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, the 1895 silent short film by Auguste and Louis Lumière. Legend has it that viewers ran out of the room at the sight of a life-sized train moving towards them. The Indian Railways has quite the opposite effect on actual passengers and movie-goers.

One of the largest transport networks in the world has been the backdrop for an inexhaustible number of songs in films set in India. In the introductory scene of Garth Davis’s Lion, the characters Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and Saroo (Sunny Pawar) jump onto a moving goods train to steal coal. When he is chased by a policeman, Guddu sees a tunnel ahead, smiles and all but opens his arms and shake his hips like Shah Rukh Khan in Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se (1995). Davis resists the urge to extend the homage, since Lion is set in 1987, but he does allow Guddu’s silhouette to disappear into the tunnel and emerge like Khan’s in Chaiyya Chaiyya, which is set entirely on a moving train.

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Lion (2016).

In Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, Julia (Kangana Ranaut) is travelling first class in a train to Arunachal Pradesh on her way to serenade troops at the border. Julia and her troupe climb on the rooftop and break into the song Tippa. The filmed track looks strikingly similar to the song sequence I’ve Seen It All from the Lars Von Trier movie Dancer In The Dark (2000). A tribute or something else?

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I've Seen It All.

All songs shot on train tops are similar, but Tippa hews very closely to I’ve Seen It All. Julia sways as the train crosses a bridge, just like Selma (Björk) in I’ve Seen It All. Men are fishing in the water below the bridge as the train passes over them in Von Trier’s movie. In Tippa, there are visuals of fishermen as well as a reference to a majhi (boatman) in the lyrics. Backup dancers move in choreographed formations in both tracks, and both tunes end with the indistinguishable fading notes of the train hoot.

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Tippa.

Tippa continues a long tradition of setting songs inside or on the top of trains and on railway platforms. Numerous tracks have been set in the confines of the compartment (Hello Hello Gentleman, Upar Wala Jaan Kar, Mere Sapno Ki Rani, Bombay Se Baroda Tak, Kasto Mazza, Dhadak Dhadak), in the driver’s coach (Dhanno Ki Aankhon Mein), the rooftops, (Hoga Tumse Pyara Kaun, Hum Dono Do Premi) and railway platforms (Jai Ho, Chikku Bukku Raile). There are even songs that pay tribute to moving trains (Rail Gaadi, Chalte Chalte, Gaadi Bula Rahi Hai, Tu Kisi Rail Si).

Movies have also been set inside trains, such as BR Chopra’s multi-starrer disaster drama The Burning Train (1980). Satyajit Ray’s Bengali film Nayak (1966) is set in real time during a 24-hour train journey from Kolkata to Delhi. In Manmohan Desai’s 1983 action comedy Coolie, Amitabh Bachchan plays a railway porter.

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A clip from Nayak (1966).

Countless memorable scenes have also been set in trains, including the meeting of Geet (Kareena Kapoor) and Aditya (Shahid Kapur) in Jab We Met (2007) and Kabir (Ranbir Kapoor) and Naina (Deepika Padukone) in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013). Both films are nods to the iconic moment of Simran (Kajol) and Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) coming together in the climax of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995).

Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge was coincidentally released in the centenary year of the train short made by the Lumière brothers. Where once The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station frightened people, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge made it cool to sprint towards a train that was getting away like a miffed lover. The scene invokes the rush that accompanies an attempt to board a moving train, a stunt that movies strongly recommend should not be tried in real life.

Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995).
Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995).