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Issue:January' 2018


Of the legendary Frontier Mail

Gautam Kaul

The General (1926) Thank goodness, the train came first and then the film. The train and the film were both ‘super hits’. The train ran fast, but running on the top of the roof of the train added speed to the lady’s body which made Nadia a super woman. She was the super woman of Indian cinema, when wonder women were unheard of.
Today I will not talk of Nadia. I am still tempted to talk on the Frontier Mail and the other trains that filled the frame of Indian cinemas in the past.
The train and its engine featured in cinema quite early. An early silent film ‘The General’(1926) was quite a caper movie with a mix of suspense, comedy and high drama on the rail track. The train engine was christened ‘The General’ in the USA because it was a powerful machine.
The British had their ‘The Flying Scotsman’ which a decade later ran a race at 127 mph to deserve that title. In 1929, it caught the eye of a film producer to attach this steam engine on to a film story of murder with a chase.

Cinema in the West still used the train and its infrastructures as a working set for some great films like ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, ‘Von Ryan’s Express’, ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, ‘Brief Encounters’ ‘Strangers on a Train’, ‘Boxcar Bertha’, ‘The Runaway Train’ and more.

In India the situation was no different. We worshipped the powerful, and passengers took pride in informing which great train they used for their important travels; Was it the Toofan Mail, Punjab Mail or the Frontier Mail to suggest high speed, physical force or fierce continence.

FRONTIER MAIL The Frontier Mail was first flagged off from Bombay Harbour line on September 5, 1928 to terminate at Peshawar under 48 hours, carrying a load of 450 passengers, a dining car, and four sleeper bogies in First Class. The Bombay Baroda and Central India Railways(BB&CIR) boasted that their Frontier Mail was the fast, the most luxurious , and the only train which connected the battle fields of Afghanistan to drop the passengers alongside waiting ships to England at Bombay harbour.

The dining car afforded the finest cut on moving wheels. Later, to the existing boast, BB&CIR added that the Frontier Mail would instal air conditioning which meant that under each carriage would be laid ice slabs with fan blowing air on these cold slabs and this wind would then be channeled into the First class cabins above.

When actresses where filmed in various situations within these cabins, one could coin the slang ‘cool’ ladies for them. Thereafter, there was a run on the use of train names as film titles. Toofan Mail as a train name was filmed featured twice in 1934 and 1955.

As a sequal in the first instance, it was named also as ‘The Return of Toofan Mail’ in 1942. In film Jawab Kanan Devi sang the famous song , ‘Yeh Duniya hai ke Toofan mail….’, emphasizing the fast modern life. The song became famous as it carried on mentioning realities of life as simile to a fast train.

Another fast train on the Indian Railway System was Punjab Mail. The film title was used in 1939 with Nadia and John Cavas. Mehboob Khan who spent the earliest childhood and youth sleeping on the benches of the Baruch Railway station, made his second film a stunt film at that, titled ‘Deccan Run’ in 1936. The train Deccan Queen could not be missed as it daily ferried its human load from Pune to Bombay on week days, and on Sunday was filled with the horse racing enthusiasts from Bombay to Pune.
High costs of running the trains and the purchase of tickets outside in the USA and Europe did not allow to make a train journey an affair to remember. But for Indians, trains became a part of all Indians coming of age. The greatest film directors like Satyajit Ray, Ghatak and Mrinal Sen of East India used effectively the train motif. On the other side in West India, film directors like Kamal Amrohi, Ravi Chopra, Ramesh Sippy, A R Kardar and more, ran their trains rather close to their success tracks. But the Frontier Mail was only mentioned once.

It was in 1936 when a film ‘Miss Frontier Mail’ was made featuring Nadia Cavas, Master Mohamed, Sayani and others. For the first time a woman in India was shown in any train running over the roof of the train, fearlessly chasing criminals. This sequence gave Nadia the title of ‘ fearless’ but the BB&CIR asked the producer of the film JBH Wadia, to add a rider to the film that their Frontier Mail afforded to its passengers the safest ride in the country!
Train bogies also provided sets for singing of songs in umpteenth films, dacoities occurred occasionally, and women being lost and recovered in the last scene. A whole train was set on fire for a film, elsewhere the train rode itself into the countryside and one even ran a tragic course to cross over to Pakistan with a load of murdered innocent souls.
Arguably, it was a train situation that set India on its course to freedom when Gandhi was thrown out of a reserved bogie for “Whites” at Pietermaritsburg railway station in 1893 in Natal, Africa. Gandhi, in later life, still used the Frontier Mail for his many travels but avoided the First Class cabins .

The train which connected North Punjab to many important halt stations before reaching Bombay, also provided the first important ride to a host of artists seeking their luck in Bombay’s film world. They included Mohammad Rafi from Lahore, Dev Anand from Punjab and Delhi, Kamal Amrohi and B R Chopra from Delhi, Prithviraj Kapoor and Dalip Kumar from Peshawar and many more, who never paid lip service to this fabled train. Poet Shailendra was a railway parcel booking clerk in Peshawar before he was discovered by Raj Kapoor.

When the Frontier Mail failed to reach its terminal point in Peshawar because the international border cut through its path and terminated now at Ferozepur, many still wished to call the train Frontier Mail. The Indian national government still decided that the train should be renamed as The Golden Temple Express. The changeover in 1966, was protested by the public, and we members of the old generation, still preferred to call the train as Frontier Mail.

The Indian Railway Timetable makes no mention of this legendry train now which was linked to Indian history without speaking for itself.