If the basic qualification for this list were a song that is only shot on a train, it would be an impossibly long and ultimately unfair list to produce. Because the train was such an important part life in India, it was only natural that the people who make movies travelled in it and hence they wrote stories with a train in it. A lot has happened on the Indian train in the movies: births, deaths, fights, love, sex, jealousy, anger and on and on and on. And since Indian movies always have songs accompanying such strong emotions, there have been songs in or on trains. But a song on a train and the train in your song are two very different things. A boy spots a girl on a train and a song begins. The music of this song could have nothing of the train in it and you wouldn't notice it, but a few film-makers and musicians try to evoke the train in their music. A boy spots a girl on a train and the hissing steam intro of Mere Sapno Ki Rani by SD Burman begins. The reference to travel by train is faint but apparent from the first minute of the song. That's what I'm talking about.
So again, what am I looking for in this list?
With these rules in mind, let's get started. In no particular order:
Music: Bappi Lahiri | Movie: Hathkadi
One of those eternal disco songs Bappi made in the 1980s, it has all the classical elements of a good Bappi Lahiri disco song: it is catchy, features a generous use of the synthesiser, has amazing vocals and is decidedly disco. The train theme here is apparent in the title and in the words of a girl waiting for her guy at the station. Why it needed to be a disco station is anybody's guess. Asha Bhosle gives this song a seriousness that just couldn't have been possible otherwise. The train is incorporated into the song as the chook-chook-chook-chook rhythm running through it. Since it is not actually set on a train but on a train station, I should really leave it off this list. But since I also will never make a list of songs set on a train station, this is the only chance to put it in a list.
Music: Shankar Ehsaan Loy | Movie: Bunty aur Babli
It is probably the most recent example I could find. A testament to how different Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are to anyone else out there. The train theme is set to two small-towners making their way to a big city in, you guessed it, a train. Start the song and you will wonder where exactly the train is in the sound until Dhadak Dhadak begins the rhythm of a train on its track. Ingenious, isn't it? Gulzar's lyrics are top-notch in conveying the hopes of two very ambitious people setting out without – and this is important – without being clichéd. For a man who had been writing lyrics in Hindi cinema for over four decades at that point, Gulzar could have sleep-walked through the lyrics and we wouldn't have noticed, but he doesn't. He gives a new language to the ambition depicted a hundred times in a hundred other films and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy then let those words soar.
Music: AR Rahman | Movie: Gentleman
Ah, ladies and gentleman, Mr AR Rahman is in the house. The man who records all night, who tinkers with the song all the way to its end and who layers his songs more than a Michelin-star cake. It is his first entry to the list and there will be a more famous entry later. An early work, this song has strangely been forgotten in recent times. A tremendously popular song in its time, perhaps it has something to do with the situation, which sounds dodgy now: a good-for-nothing vagabond teases a girl on a local train. Would it help if I say that Rahman perfectly adds the beat of a train-in-motion? This rhythm is sparingly used and yet tells us exactly where the song is set, and it permeates the song. This song is important for another reason. This is where a certain choreographer, Prabhu Deva, had a guest appearance as the aforementioned vagabond. It was not an unusual thing to happen at the time. Prabhu Deva's own brother had a guest appearance in the Rukkumani Rukkumani song in Roja, but somehow this particular song just got crazily popular. Prabhu Deva then went on to work with the director of the film, Shankar, in Kaadalan (Hum Se Hai Muqabala) and never looked back. Thankfully the music to that film has never been forgotten.
Music: Shantanu Moitra | Movie: Parineeta
There is a long list of songs that are set in the hills. The cool surrounding of the hills, with its winding ways up and down, have been travelled by our film songs on horses, trucks, cars and trains. Of this type is the train song set in the toy train of the hills. This type of song immediately evokes the great Mere Sapno ki Rani and that is a losing battle. But Shantanu Moitra steers clear of any such reference. The train beat is a soft chook-chook-chook. What really defines this song are the absolutely complementary and melodious voices of Sonu Nigam and Shreya Ghoshal. Once those voices begin, you are lost in the longing they express and all thought of comparison is lost. And then there are the children singing the chorus. Every time I hear that bit, it becomes an ear worm running in my head over and over again for the entire day.
Music: RD Burman | Movie: Zamane ko Dikhana Hai
This list really doesn't get anywhere until the stars get on top of the trains. And no list of Hindi film music can get anywhere without Pancham. Every other song here uses the sound of the train literally either as a chook-chook or as a beat of the drums. Not Pancham. The train beat of tara-rum-tarum-tarum-tarum is on a string instrument and it keeps the song brilliantly within the limits of a song about consolation. Pancham even incorporates effortlessly the then ubiquitous train whistle into the song. Brilliantly performed by the most able of the lip-sync stars of Hindi cinema, Rishi Kapoor, this is a perfect song set in the hills. Yes, it is a hill-train song. Majrooh's lyrics evoke the hills and Pancham does the rest.
Music: AR Rahman | Movie: Dil Se
Wearing a red coat on a cold early morning, Shah Rukh Khan gets up on roof of a train to find a dance troupe conveniently there. Thus begins AR Rahman's second entry into the train song list and arguably one of the greatest songs of Hindi cinema. Lyrics by Gulzar to complement the incomparable vocals by Sukhwinder Singh and Sapna Awasthi. The beat of the train here is different from Chiku Buku and so is the mood. It is a song celebrating love on a train in the hills and, like the best AR Rahman songs, is spiritual. At the time, the dancing on a train was the main draw of the song and while it does seem a difficult feat to pull off that glory has since faded. What remains now is the pure ecstasy of the song. I envy anyone who is listening to it for the first time, for they are starting on a lifelong relationship.