Tamil film industry is one of the biggest patrons of railways

From the age of the steam locomotive to the era of the diesel engine, Tamil cinema’s romance with the railways has been going strong with filmmakers ready to fork out good money and persevere through a maze of procedures to have real trains and other railway properties on their sets.

For all its formidable studio expertise to designing life-like sets and CGI (computer-generated imagery) capabilities, the Tamil film industry remains one of the biggest patrons of the railways among Indian film industries, going by the steady number of applications filed at divisional offices of Southern Railway.

According to railway officials, requests for permission to use trains or railway station premises in the current year have already exceeded the applications received during the last two years. So far, the Railways has processed and approved 17 requests in 2013-14, which is more than the 14 applications of 2012-13 and 16 during 2011-12.

Since the time ‘Kalaivanar’ N.S. Krishnan in the film ‘Nallathambi’ (1949) held forth in a harikatha exposition that the railways was a unifier and a great leveller as it admitted travellers of all caste and creed when human effort to remove untouchability had failed, the Tamil industry has immortalised the railways in many ways in its movies.

As early as the 1960s, the reel-rail romance was well and truly rocking with A. Bhim Singh’s ‘Pachai Vilakku’ (1964), casting Sivaji Ganesan as a train driver who does heroic acts. Music composer Viswanathan Ramamurthi too got into the groove of things with the lilting ‘Olimayamana ethirkalam..’ with its mid-section guided by the rhythm of a moving train.

Years later, music maestro Ilayaraja would pay his own tribute to the railways with the song “Poovarasampoo…” set to the metallic resonance of a moving train in Bharathiraja’s 1978 movie, ‘Kizhekke Pogum Rayil’ – the film was such a huge hit that its heroine earned the epithet ‘Rayil Radhika’.

‘Kizhekke Pogum Rayil’ is still remembered for its hero and heroine communicating through scrawls on the rear of the last coach. The east-bound train also becomes the escape vehicle when the villagers chase them, opposing their relationship.

‘Oru Thalai Ragam’ (1980) a film by T. Rajendar, which was based on youth who share a commute on a train every day, was another big hit in its time.

“I have always been fascinated by trains…I love the scent of coal smoke from a steam engine,” says director Balu Mahendra, who used a train scene so poignantly in the climax of the Kamal Hassan-Sridevi award-winning classic ‘Moondram Pirai’. “It was raining on the day we were shooting the climax. Though rain was not part of the script we decided to include it,” says the director who believes that the climax represented one of the best train scenes in Indian cinema.

Even as one generation of actors and directors gave way to another, the train somehow managed to retain its part-time role in Tamil cinema.

Among contemporary filmmakers, director Shankar has turned out be the biggest rail fan with many of his big budget films having extensive footage of trains, while many box office hits of contemporary heroes, from superstar Rajinikanth (Sivaji/Endhiran) and Surya (Pithamagan) to Vikram (Anniyan) and Vijay (Nanban/Thuppakki) have featured train scenes.

“There are so many papers to sign, but the requests for permission keep coming,” a railway official said.

This article has been corrected for a factual error.

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