The great melodramatic Hollywood disaster movies of the 1970s, like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, are already so over-the-top that they approach the standards of larger-than-life unreality defined by masala. And so it is not surprising at all that The Burning Train, which invokes those disaster thrillers and salts them with additional masala elements, is as engaging and satisfying a masala offering as any other of its era.
The Burning Train adopts the conventions of these Hollywood disasters: a vast, all-star cast; a noteworthy but hubris-tinged event beset by a chain reaction of life-threatening catastrophes; a disparate group of victims each with his or her own miniature story. It transposes them to the railroad, India's circulatory system, a potent symbol of the republic's industriousness, strength, and potential. And it adds those singular spices that only masala can provide: a double romance, an angry, beaten man bent on revenge, dishum-dishum, Asrani swaggering in a military uniform. The result is nothing less than stellar masala.
Instead of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, The Burning Train offers Vinod (Vinod Khanna) and Ashok (Dharmendra). These two childhood friends boost each other through parallel romances with Sheetal (Parveen Babi) and Seema (Hema Malini) respectively. These two are so tight that when they pair up with the girls for a tandem bicycle ride, they share a bike with each other.
But a masala film also needs a villain, and this The Burning Train delivers in no less tortured a form than Randhir (Danny Denzongpa), for his whole life always a bridesmaid and never a bride. When they were just boys, Vinod elbowed Randhir off the miniature train they both loved to ride. As a young man, Randhir loses Sheetal to Vinod's superior charisma. If that is not enough for Randhir to endure, Vinod wins a prestigious engineering contract that Randhir feels is rightly his: development of India's fastest train, the Super Express.
In the inconsolable humiliation of this last defeat Randhir finally snaps, in magnificent bug-eyed style worthy of any masala villain. (Danny Denzongpa does raging agony better than almost anyone.) Randhir sabotages the Super Express's inaugural journal, and sets in motion the chain of events that leads to the film's titular disaster: The Super Express, loaded with hundreds of passengers, hurtling through the countryside without brakes, with flames exploding out of its carriage windows. This is where The Burning Train takes off as an exemplar of the disaster movie genre.
In the tradition of disaster classics, The Burning Train weaves much of its second half from miniature vignettes of its diverse passengers thrown together on their ill-fated journey. And in classic masala tradition, these vignettes take on many tones. Some are played for comedy, like my darling Rajendranath's broadly goofy pandit, or Keshto Mukherjee and Paintal hiding in the loo to avoid the ticket collector. Some provide drama and dishoom-dishoom, like Ranjeet the jewel thief and Sujeet Kumar, the undercover detective hot on his trail. Some provide pathos, like Simi Garewal the sad-faced schoolteacher leading a prayerful song to comfort her terrified charges. Amd some add even more romance and heroism to the already rich mix provided by the lead couples: Madhu (Neetu Singh), fleeing from an unwanted marriage, falls for a petty thief named Ravi (Jeetendra), who finds his nobler side in the challenge of love and disaster.
Jeetu and Neetu; a touching and sad moment from one of the many passenger vignettes.
That is an awful lot for one train to haul, but the Super Express has the capacity. With an R.D. Burman soundtrack that hits all the requisite notes from jaunty romance to plaintive lament, a cast packed with more stars than the U.S. flag, and legitimately impressive footage of train carriages belching flames, The Burning Train delivers the cargo. The relationships of the principals provide the kind of substantive themes that distinguish high-quality masala - the importance of honesty and honor in love, the need to cherish one's family and not lose the self in driving ambition. Mix these masala goods with the tropes of the best Hollywood disaster tales - and throw in Vinod Khanna, Dharmendra, and Jeetendra in super-shiny foil fire-resistant alien space suits - and the result is indeed a truly super ride.