The Burning Train: One of Ravi Chopra's good-looking flops

When The Burning Train was announced in 1980, the trade chalked it up to be a hit. It had a big production banner, a star-studded cast, a brilliant music director, and a scintillating plot going for it. However, the film flopped, though it remains a popular cult movie to date. On director Ravi Chopra's death anniversary (12 November), we take a look at the film that was one of his finest career moments.

Shriram Iyengar

When The Burning Train was announced in 1980, the trade put it down as a big hit. It had everything going for it. A star cast that included the hit pair of Hema Malini and Dharmendra, plus Jeetendra, Parveen Babi, Neetu Singh, Vinod Khanna and Vinod Mehra, with Danny Denzongpa playing the villain. The soundtrack, composed by RD Burman, was a brilliant mix of Hindi cultural epics and rapid guitar rhythms substituting for a train. Above all, the film was based on a disaster plot, something rarely attempted in Hindi cinema.

Ravi Chopra must have been familiar with disaster plots. It was BR Chopra's blockbuster production Waqt (1965) which was Hindi cinema's first multi-starrer film built around a disaster. Directed by Yash Chopra, Waqt told the story of a family torn apart by an earthquake and brought together by a murder. Sadly, Ravi lacked the directorial touch of his uncle, Yash. While he had a commendable film in the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Zameer (1975), it did not deliver to the superstar expectations of Bachchan's films. 

The Burning Train is, in many ways, an anomaly. Over the years, the popularity of the film and its songs has been increasing. It remains a well-watched film on Indian television. A highlight of the film was its special effects. Though they did not match up to the standards of Hollywood disaster flicks such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) or The Towering Inferno (1974), it certainly had some elements going for it. 

Built around a dramatic tale of Indian engineers building the country's fastest train, only for a vengeful contractor to plan to blow it up on its debut run, The Burning Train arrived on screen eight years after the first Rajdhani Express, then the country's fastest train, ran from Bombay Central to New Delhi in 1972.

Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna played the genius driver and engineer charged with helping the train on its way, while Denzongpa plotted revenge against Dharmendra, who steals his girl, Hema Malini. What makes the journey even more interesting is the number of characters on the train. A petty thief Ravi (Jeetendra), a runaway bride (Neetu Singh), a dancer Ramkali (Asha Sachdev), a priest (Rajendranath), and a maulvi, as well as the villainous Ranjeet. 

In hindsight, the film had a lot going for it. The music by RD Burman included a fabulous qawwali, 'Pal Do Pal Ka Saath Hamara', and the catchy opening theme. Burman was still far away from his bad phase, and The Burning Train is a remarkable album with a mix of heady Western and Indian influences.

Despite all the pluses, Ravi Chopra's efforts did not set the screen alight. The credits of the film list Deluxe Laboratories, Los Angeles, as part of the special effects team. Considering the scale and nature of the visual effects, it would certainly not have been a cheap procedure. The expensive visual effects, except for the miniature train sequence at the climax, were brilliant. Many critics referred to the miniature train sequence as the moment that ruined the film. With the plot developing towards an exciting finish, choosing to blow up a miniature, though economical, was anti-cinematic. The film failed to match the box-office returns of other films like Dostana, Karz or Qurbani, which released the same year. 

The film ended the directorial ambitions of Ravi Chopra. His next few projects, Aaj Ki Awaaz (1984), Dahleez (1986), and Kal Ki Awaz (1992), were dismal flops.

Incidentally, the filmmaker greatest career success was another epic tale, Mahabharat, but on television. Produced by BR Chopra, the series revolved around the mythological story about the fall of a great kingdom and remains an iconic moment in the evolution of Indian television.

In fact, Ravi Chopra enjoyed great success on television with serials like Ramayan (2001) and Aap Beeti (1999-2000), the latter laying the foundation for many of the reality-based documentary shows on television today. He made a splendid return to the big screen with the emotional dramas of Baghban (2003) and Baabul (2005). 

Coming back to The Burning Train, it proved to be a film of great promise that failed to deliver. Over the years, it remains an enigmatic reminder of Ravi Chopra's vision and his promise, which were eventually realised on the smaller screen.