There was, once, a Bollywood that courted its audiences with the suggestive melody of "Gaadi Bula Rahi Hai". Now, moviegoers are pursued with an unrelenting, in-your-face, "Get On The Train, Baby".
"Ticket khareed ke baith ja seat pe, nikal na jaaye Chennai Express," we are summoned. Unabashed, you say. Such is the tone, such are the times. The film is a blatant pursuit of mad fun, the kind that promises to entertain you without plot or prudence. Fortunately, it does entertain - well, mostly.
Rahul (Shahrukh Khan), a mischevious 40-year-old (no smirking, please) itching to holiday and live it up with his friends, decides to carry his grandfather's ashes to Goa rather than Rameshwaram, which is where the old man wanted to be put to rest.
But the director has other plans, and a clueless Rahul lends a helping hand (literally) to the runaway Meenamaa Lochni (Dipika Padukone) who, predictably, is running away from the horror of arranged (ahem, forced) marriage.
The Chennai Express is made to work as a motif that connects Rahul-North to Meena-South. Wanakkum, my filmi fellow citizens, to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
revisited in South India. There are no "aiyyos" and no sambar-dripping conversations - the usual stereotypes are kept at bay. But that does not mean that new ones are not created.
Pursued by the heroine's burly, sickle-wielding cousins, the duo take off on a cat-and-mouse chase. They are brought back to the village where Meena's father Durgeshwara (Sathyaraj), a stern-faced don; her Herculean suitor Tangaballi (Nikitin Dheer); and a hundred dhoti-clad men wait for them.
The rest is a disorderly journey of running away from and running to. Cinematographer Dudley's lens captures this passage with competence as it presents vivid frames capturing the verdure of the South. An aerial view of the serpentine train making its way through exquisite greenery is one such shot.
The 21st century potboiler, specifically of the Rohit Shetty variety, is by self-admission an exercise in frivolity, and on that front, the film delivers, in most parts. The humour stems from the usual - a clowning SRK, lost-in-translation comicality, a comedy of errors, and the heavy meta-references to recent Hindi cinema (everything from "All Is Well
" to Life Of Pi
Shahrukh Khan, at his cheeky best, pays homage to his statutory filmi poses, all the while laughing at himself. There are instances where this self-referencing becomes a tired attempt at buffoonery, but our man carries it the best he can.
Deepika Padukone, though straight as a ramrod in a kanjeevaram, plays the self-assured heroine with adequate finesse. Her Tamil accent is part-funny, part-irksome. There are a few key scenes where she steals the limelight from the King Khan himself.
Even though this is a Rohit Singham
Shetty flick, the hero does not indulge in manliness-for-the sake-of-machismo, nor does he glorify violence. A comic contrast is created between the small, hiding-behind-Meenamaa; Rahul; and the beefy, bullheaded Tangaballi. Shetty's Rahul is a "common man" even though he keeps reminding us, without fail, of the legacy of Shahrukh Khan.
Surprisingly, significant portions of Chennai Express are voiced in Tamil without any subtitles, but it is mostly successful in pulling off the gap that it creates between itself and its North-Indian audiences. Even the cast is largely made up of actors from the South-Indian film industry.
Chennai Express acts as a commentary on the miscommunication between individuals / communities or the complete lack of it, and yet there are bits where it leaves the viewer bewildered. We mean, why, really why, the burst of social consciousness and the rather abrupt soapboxing on the "girl child"? Why the underlying moral that the North and the South are the same beneath it all? Why, why? The film risks derailment every time it attempts to move away from its smart-alecky self.
The music by Vishal-Shekhar keeps in tune with this smart-alecky tone of the film. "Kashmir Main, Tu Kanyakumari" and 'Get On The Train, Baby" are boisterous, and the lyrics are somewhat juvenile. The song "Titli", on the other hand, is soft and melodious.
Rohit Shetty holds back on the jowl-busting sequences (though there is a metal-crunching car chase) except when the hero needs to prove his love, which turns out to be a long bash-up.
You may diss or hail Chennai Express, but know this that in our country nothing is as powerful as the Bollywood star-system. If you are a "Jab Tak Hai Jaan
, I'm a Shahrukh fan" person, then this is your film.
Shetty makes imbecile humour fashionable. Will he make it, yet again, to the 100-Crore Film Club, we do not know, and we do not care.