August 9, 2013
Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan, Sathyaraj, Nikitin Dheer, Kamini Kaushal, Lekh Tandon, Manorama, Priyamani
Hindi and Tamil
WARNING:LONG REVIEW AHEAD!
The first half hour of ChennaiExpress is rollicking good fun: the lines are quick-witted, Shah RukhKhan’s comic timing is a revelation (didn’t know he had it in him! he should domore comedies!), Deepika Padukone’s thick Tamilian accent is hilarious (if onlywe can relax and not get our knickers in a twist about it) plus we get a neatlittle parody of the climactic scene in DilwaleDulhania Le Jayenge that deserves, in fact, to be mocked. After thatthough, it’s a series of troughs and crests and crests and troughs – in fact,too many troughs – culminating in an overly long finale fight and theinexplicable Lungi Dance. Overallassessment though: if you’re in a mood for some determinedly nonsensical entertainmentthat’s not entirely as over-the-top as we’re used to seeing from director RohitShetty, this one’s it.
SRK takes on his favourite screen name once again in Chennai Express in which he plays the40-year-old grandson of an over-protective North Indian halwai (Lekh Tandon) in Mumbai. When the old man passes away, Rahulheads off to Goa for a holiday but is diverted to Tamil Nadu’s Komban village whenhe gets unwittingly embroiled in the business of Meenamma (Deepika), the beautifuldaughter of a Tamilian don (Sathyaraj). The question many have been asking sincethe film’s first trailer was released is this: is Chennai Express a return to the irritating old Bollywood stereotypeof the oily-haired aiyyaiyyo southIndian epitomised by Mehmood in Padosanand repeated ad nauseam in Hindi films till the end of the 1980s? The answer,with a few caveats, is a surprising no. Yes, there’s a pointed contrast madebetween the skin colour of the film’s southern Indian lead players and theiremphatically black-skinned flunkeys, but to be fair, Bollywood’s portrayal of northIndians is not very different, with a lighter skin usually conveying a higherstatus. It’s noteworthy though that ChennaiExpress sends out a gentle message to north Indians who by and large considerit every Indian’s duty to speak Hindi while making no effort themselves tolearn other Indian languages. It does so by doggedly not subtitling its lengthyTamil dialogues, choosing instead to get translations from Meenamma or a Tamil-speakingSikh policeman played sweetly by Mukesh Tiwari, and on other occasions leaving theaudience to guess what’s probably being said.
Most interestingly, SRK spends much of the film in aself-deprecating mood, being the anti-thesis of the Hindi film hero, openlyshowing his fear of the bad guys, with the camerawork intentionally stressing hissmallness in comparison with the towering presence of the villain Thangabaliplayed by Nikitin Dheer. He gets a drubbing from Thangabali at one point.Elsewhere, he seeks Meenamma’s protection though of course he won’t admit it. Andin one scene, the lady even gets to kick him real hard for reasons we won’treveal. How often does a Hindi film hero do this? Kudos then to Shah Rukh forrisking it, especially considering the prevailing on-screen invincibility ofhis arch rival Salman Khan who remains capable of taking on crowds, trains andtrams with his bare fists. Rahul even – hold your breath! – announces his ageas 40 in the very first line he utters in the film, and Meenamma tells him helooks 50-plus. Considering that at 47-going-on-48 SRK played a 25-year-old boyin the first half of last year’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan, this comes as a relief. Gentlemen of Bollywood, when you star ina film with a heroine half your age, kindly admit that it’s anolder-man-younger-woman romance.
The other significant point is Chennai Express’ take on DDLJ,the film that catapulted SRK from stardom to stratospheric megastardom. DDLJ romanticised its regressive messageabout the unquestionable will of the family patriarch and a woman’s lack of sayin personal matters. Twenty years later, SRK returns as another Rahul, thistime not to succumb but to question a father for being despotic with hisdaughter. The men are still the ones doing the talking, but the nature of theconversation has changed, and that’s a small milestone to celebrate.
If the preceding paragraph suggests in any way thatMeenamma is a pushover or Deepika’s role is subordinate to Shah Rukh’s in thisfilm, you’ve read that wrong. Meenamma is a woman who strains at her chains everystep of the way. And Deepika sustains her comic timing from start to finish in Chennai Express even when SRK’s Rahulgets repetitive in the second half. After the emotional roller-coaster shepulled off in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani,here’s another thumbs up for Ms Padukone, this time in a vastly different role.SRK lives up to his promise – made in a beverage ad – that from this film forwardhis heroine’s name would appear before his in the credits, which as we all knowis a break from MCP Bollywood’s norm. Now that’s a condescending piece of toshif your heroine is playing fifth fiddle to you as is the case with most Hindifilms (and certainly Rohit Shetty’s own last two, Bol Bachchan and Singham),but in Chennai Express Deepika is anequal partner to her hero, as she has been in most of her films so far.Hopefully a day is not far when a leading lady does not have to depend on aleading man’s largesse to have her name placed in the credits where it shouldrightfully be. Until then, here’s another small milestone to celebrate.
It’sbecause of how Chennai Expresschooses to portray south Indians and its heroine until that point that the Lungi Dance in the end is so jarring.First, it relegates Deepika completely to the position of junior partner whenit starts off with the announcement, “This is the tribute to Thalaivar from King Khan…” Second, theso-called “tribute” to Rajinikanth continues to reduce this Tamil film icon tomere exotica, which is how North India has deigned to recognise him ever sincethe North India-centric, supposedly “national” media accidentally woke up tohis legend status with the release of Sivaji.As a comical song-and-dance somewhere in the middle of this film, Lungi Dance might have been enjoyable. Placedat the end with the credits, with absolutely no connection to anything that’sgone before, and positioned as a bow to Rajini, it’s reductive and makesabsolutely no sense. Though some people north of the Vindhyas may find thishard to believe, there’s ACTUALLY more to Rajinikanth than his sunglass-flippingand other stunts.
Clearlythen, Chennai Express is not anentirely smooth ride. Never mind the ideological analysis… Purely from anentertainment point of view, the film slows down too much in the second half. Somethings remain consistent though: DoP Dudley does a good job of capturing the film’suniformly picturesque locations; production designer Narendra Rahurikar createsprettiness without colour coordinating wall paint with the clothes worn bypeople standing against those walls as we’ve seen in too many films of the pastdecade; and the costume design team clothes Deepika in the loveliest southernIndian saris and half-saris while dressing the rest of the cast impeccably too,sans the loudness we’ve come to associate with Rohit Shetty’s films. The music,on the other hand, is mostly lousy – except for the extremely catchy Chennaiaiaiaiai Chennai Express themeand the reasonably melodic Titli,This comes as a huge disappointment considering Vishal-Shekhar’s amazing trackrecord. National Award-winning Tamil and Malayalam actress Priyamani lookslovely in her item song appearance but must bear the brunt of the tunelessnessof the number to which she is dancing. South India knows her well; Bollywoodsaw the impact she makes even in a supporting role when she played AbhishekBachchan’s sister in Raavan… for god’ssake, she deserves better than this.
Whenyou weigh out the film’s assets and liabilities though, there’s more to likethan not. Too many Bollywood comedies in recent years have come laden with“jokes” about rape, faeces and farts, urine and sundry body fluids. Chennai Express steers clear ofcrudeness except for a couple of un-funny comments about izzat lootna, one tacky wisecrack about “chhakkaas” and a few-seconds-long distasteful reference to ShahRukh’s most sensitive film so far (“My name is Rahul and I’m not a terrorist,”says the hero here, rolling his eyes as if autism is amusing). Chennai Express is partly designed as abow to SRK (I lost count of the number of times in the film he stretches outhis arms in that trademark gesture) but in a fashion that’s less in-your-facethan the grating Salman-worship we’ve lately been seeing in the other Khan’s films.
Onething’s for sure: this film is not as mindless as it would like us to think itis. Anyway, kee farak painda? For asMeenamma might say in that infectious accent of hers, “Main ab review khatam karti, tum review padhti, phir tum film dekhti aurkhud decide karti ki tum film like karti ya hate karti.” Chennai Express is not unrelentinglylaugh-worthy, but it’s still good enough for a relaxed, pleasant evening. HappyEid, folks!
Rating (out of five): **3/4
CBFC Rating (India):
2 hours 23 minutes