I had very low expectations of Chennai Express, mostly due to Rohit Shetty’s idea of humour. I expected something along the lines of “a typical filmi Rahul type wanders into a Tamil film. Hijinks ensue.” And that is what I got. Not entirely successful, but amusing enough with loads of colour and movement, Chennai Express is a good timepass.
Shah Rukh plays this Rahul as an anti-Rahul. Where the KKKG model Rahul would have made his grandfather’s last wish a priority, this one tries to skive off. Rahul has lived in comfort all of his 40 years and yet feels no obligation to family. He is an unappealing manchild clearly in need of a wakeup call. A series of misadventures see him trapped on the Chennai Express, headed straight for a showdown with a Tamil don and his family. Shah Rukh has no qualms about making Rahul a shallow idiot to start with and there is an air of self-parody about some of his preening and posing. I particularly liked the sly humour when Meenamma (Deepika Padukone) guesses he must be 50, or maybe even older. Shah Rukh does all his familiar shtick from hair ruffling, décolletage sniffing (you know the move), arm flinging, to the eyes welling with tears. Of course it wouldn’t be an SRK film without a far too long speech about some social issue. While I appreciated the content (women should be able to make choices for themselves) it was rather undermined by the context (blokes beating each other to a pulp so Rahul might win the right to give Meena her choice). Shah Rukh isn’t perfect, and he does ham wildly at times but he also has the courage to show off those spindly legs in a lungi.
Deepika gives one of her better performances as Meenamma (leaving aside her much criticised accent which didn’t bother me that much). From her DDLJ style entry (and one of the funnier scenes that ensued) and her cheerful explanation that her father (the excellent Sathyaraj) is a renowned don, Meenamma made an impression. Deepika always looks pretty but often fails to convey chemistry with her co-stars. She seems to have overcome that as her scenes with Shah Rukh are lively, often fun and even moving. She has worked on her dancing too and appeared to good effect in the big production numbers. And her wardrobe was just lovely although I’m not sure where all the sarees kept coming from. Generous village ladies I guess.
Initially dismissive of each other, there is no insta-love. Their relationship develops through forced proximity and dealing with external threats. A series of events open each character’s eyes to their feelings and the triggers for these changes make sense within the story. Meena is the first to fall but she has reservations about Rahul and isn’t overcome by silliness just because her heart flutters. The romance works for me as it isn’t the primary motivation from the start, despite Rahul’s pathetic flirting.
As I expected, the comedy is often too broad and overplayed for my tastes. But there were some wittier scenes that I really liked. Rahul and Meenamma communicate in front of their abductors by singing in Hindi to Bollywood songs, many from SRK films. When Meena finds out Rahul is a mithaiwala or tries to guess his age, Deepika’s reactions seemed spontaneous and very funny. But it is hit and miss. Heather found several things funny that I would edit out (e.g. Meenamma’s ‘nightmare’) and other audience members were just about wetting themselves in scenes that had me checking my watch. I liked the product placements that were often done in tongue-in-cheek style.
There is a lot of chatter about the South Indian stereotypes portrayed. Well, there is just about every stereotype present and the North Indians were less than perfect. Rahul was arrogant, ignorant and not really interested in Tamil culture, assuming people were quaint caricatures or savages. The Tamil rowdies were played by the guys who play Tamil rowdies in almost every film; swarthy, stocky and spiral permed as always. The ‘other’ South stereotypes also appeared – salt of the earth villagers with hearts of gold. There was even a comedy Punjabi policeman. No one was safe. Maybe it is just that years of watching Indian film portrayals of fat people, coloured people, white people, disabled people, what was the other one … oh yes, women, has eroded my sensibilities. Rohit Shetty gave some standards his own fun twist too – like trading a convoy of white Sumos for a fleet of colourful 4WDs.
The supporting cast are largely playing the same roles they play in their own film industry so that was fun to see. Nikitin Dheer was perfectly fine as Meenamma’s unwanted prospective groom but I couldn’t help wishing they cast favourite “That Guy” Subbaraju. Maybe he refused on the grounds that singing Chamak Challo would be bad for his image.
Hooray for item numbers! Priyamani and her back up dudes were fantastic. I especially liked the enthusiasm of the guy in the yellow scarf who appears between SRK and Priyamani and the guy in the stripey mesh singlet. Who cares if the song lyrics are stupid? Vishal-Shekhar had me wanting to hit replay and dance! SRK struggling to keep up with the chunky backing dancers and looking like a fish out of water may not have been intentional but it suited Rahul. He looks happy and absolutely knackered in the behind the scenes bits in that clip.
The other songs were visually extravagant and included all the other SI film staples that couldn’t fit in the narrative. The much vaunted tribute to Rajinikanth is a dud. While Rajini is not much of a dancer, there was little of his style in the number. The fight scenes and car stunts are what I’d expect from a Hindi director with a big budget and a couple of Tamil DVDs on the coffee table; spectacular but a bit slower and more laboured than if this was a real South film. And like many South Indian films, this is visually gorgeous.
I liked more than I disliked about Chennai Express, but apart from the songs I don’t think I would watch it again. Despite all the Tamil references, this reminds me more of a Telugu film as – spoiler – no one is raped and there are lots of survivors at the end. Worth a watch, more so if you’re a Shah Rukh fan.
Heather says: I also had really low expectations for this film which is possibly why I enjoyed Chennai Express as much as I did. For a change I even liked Deepika and I thought she did particularly well in the comedy scenes. Perhaps it’s only when she appears opposite Shah Rukh that she actually manages to act. I also laughed much more than I was expecting – after all I don’t think I’ve been amused by a Rohit Shetty film before either. Chennai Express is really very funny, despite the humour mostly being very broad and largely based on various caricatures. However as Temple mentions, there was some more subtle humour and the references to many older films were witty and often poked fun at SRK more than at any particular stereotype.
I enjoyed the music and dancing more on screen too, since I hadn’t been terribly impressed with the soundtrack on first listening. The highlight was definitely Priyamani and watching Shah Rukh trying to keep up, but most of the songs were well pictured and enjoyable. Any song is always much better with the addition of elephants in my opinion! Overall the film looks beautiful, although it really could have been almost anywhere in the south and only the language placed the film in Tamil Nadu.
Chennai Express is not one of my favourite Shah Rukh Khan films, but definitely not his worst, and there are a few scenes I would like to watch again. Not the lungi dance tribute to Rajni over the end credits though – I’d recommend leaving when the credits start to roll!