When his grandfather dies, Rahul, a 40-year-old sweet seller (Shah Rukh Khan) is given the responsibility to travel to Rameshwaram to scatter his ashes. En route, he ‘rescues’ Meenamma, a beautiful Tamilian girl (Deepika Padukone) from some thugs, but finds his actions lead him to being taken by force to her South Indian village where her father rules as Don, where he is trapped. Will he escape the village alive? Will he deliver his grandfather’s ashes promptly? Will the good-looking couple fall in love? Well, duh.
If you are a fan of Rohit Shetty’s previous films - the Golmaal trilogy, Bol Bachchan - there is no doubt you will enjoy this film. If you’re a die-hard Shah Rukh Khan fan like this reviewer, who loves to see him play the kind of ‘Rahul’ character he’s played to death in films like Kuch Kuch Hota Hain and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, maybe you’ll get a kick out of him not only sporting the same personality, but taking self-effacing digs at his previous films. Everyone else, you may want to see what films in the cinema are playing in English.
Despite his best efforts, many of Shah Rukh’s comedic attempts fall flat and feel as if he is trying too hard to be the Indian Jim Carrey. Though relying on his outworn ‘Rahul’ persona, this avatar is more whiney and spineless than previous outings – well, before his random transformation to a super action hero in the last ten minutes where he takes on the might of an entire village of men. It’s difficult to warm to Rahul right from the beginning of the film, being a character who is more preoccupied with arranging a holiday to Goa with his friends than to fulfill his grandfather’s dying wish – especially when that same grandfather spent 40 years bringing him up from birth.
The whole subplot of delivering his grandfather’s ashes seems to completely disappear once Rahul meets Meenamma, though this is when the film agreeably hits its stride. The culture clash between Rahul and Meenamma is a delight, and Shah Rukh and Deepika work fantastically as comedic sparring partners. Special kudos goes to Deepika who nails the character of the feisty Tamilian runaway to a tee. What is not so enlightening is when Meenamma loses every hint of positive female representation towards the end of the film and is reduced to a stereotypical damsel-in-distress. As the film rightfully remarks, it’s India’s 66th year of independence and Indian women still don’t feel independent. Yet it obliterates everything about that statement by showing that a male hero still needs to save them.
Despite an unimpressive start, the time spent with Rahul and Meenamma playing a musical charade as a couple in love in front of a village that can’t understand a word of Hindi is executed well and reaching the intermission raises hopes – although not a complete success, the film is enjoyable enough. Unfortunately, once the second half kicks off with an absurd scene of Rahul asking a dwarfed villager for directions, it all goes downhill. An unbelievable love story feels shoe-horned, followed by a return of the unwelcome ashes subplot, and then a complete nosedive into heavy violence that feels unwarranted for a film marketed towards family viewing. The greatest mystery of all – with Rahul away from home and contactless for so many days, aren’t his grandmother and friends even remotely curious to where he’s vanished?
Regardless of plot, the sights and sounds of the film are fantastic. Shot in Goa and parts of South India, cinematographer Dudley (who also shot Singham and Bol Bachchan) does a wonderful job of catching both the natural greens and celebratory colours. The music is also alternatively toe-tapping and emotionally-stirring, though the inclusion of a few songs back-to-back in the romantic interlude really slowed down the film in the second half. What’s most unforgiveable however is an advert for the Nokia Lumia integrated into one of the scenes – it’s without a doubt the worst use of product placement in a Bollywood film since Anil Kapoor tried to offer Aishwarya Rai a bottle of Coke in Taal.
With light-hearted romance following slow-motion car-flips and explosions, Chennai Express is unapologetically, a no-brainer masala flick along the lines of Ready, Bodyguard, Singham, Dabanng et al. Confessedly, this reviewer is not a fan of those films, but the size of their successful box office takings is undeniable. As SRK catchphrases countless times through the film: “Do not underestimate the power of the common man”, it’s hard not to imagine director Shetty saying to his financiers “Do not underestimate the wallet of a common man.” As the success of its Rs 6.75 crores preview takings has proven (breaking the record set by 3 Idiots), the wallet of the common man is pretty damn huge.
Chennai Express is showing at cinemas worldwide now.
Read part 1 of our interview with Shah Rukh and Deepika here.