Rohit Shetty’s Chennai Express is something of a first: a “North Indian” film where South Indians, however caricatured, come off better. As the story begins, we’re introduced to the token North Indian – Rahul, played by Shah Rukh Khan. His parents are dead, and he lives with his grandparents, who raised him and ensured that, thanks to a successful family business, he’ll not want for anything. And, when this doting (if also suffocating) grandfather passes on, how does Rahul repay his debt? By making a plan with friends to hang out in Goa – where he’ll most likely get laid – instead of honouring the grandfather’s last wish, which is to have his ashes dispersed in the holy waters of Rameswaram. Rahul’s grandmother (Kamini Kaushal) tells him that she cannot trust anyone else with this task, and yet, he lies to her, orchestrating the elaborate charade of booking a ticket on the titular train, and when, at the station, she says it doesn’t go to Rameswaram, he cooks up another lie on the spot, all the while planning to hop off at the next stop and join his friends. Worse, wherever he goes, he keeps forgetting about that urn of ashes.
And when, due to circumstances (otherwise known as masala-movie screenwriting), he ends up in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, he’s lost. He mocks the locals who converse in languages that sound funny to him, but they have the last laugh. They may speak accented and grammatically incorrect Hindi, but they do speak the language (sometimes Marathi too) – and if they found themselves stranded in the North, they would have no problem getting around. (When, finally, Rahul attempts a speech in Tamil, it sounds like he’s gargling with marbles – all you can do is laugh.) In addition, the South Indians are hospitable. They are considerate about the repercussions of their actions, as when Meenamma (Deepika Padukone) tells Rahul that if they make a run for it, then the villagers who gave them shelter will never help elopers again. They care about family. (They wouldn’t forget about an urn of a relative’s ashes that came into their custody.) They’re stronger, better built, and sometimes (as in the case of Sathyaraj, who plays Meenamma’s father) as fair-complexioned as Rahul is. And they’re good in a crunch. When Rahul gets lost in a forest, he has to depend on Meenamma to guide him to safety. Viewed through the prism of gender stereotypes, she does the man’s job, while he’s content — at least for a while – to set afloat little lamps in a pond, surrounded by smiling housewives.
Given that Shah Rukh is, by far, the hero who’s embraced his feminine side the most, he’s a perfect fit in this part. It’s been a while since he did pure comedy – reveling in the kind of silliness we saw in Baadshah, the Farah Khan outings, and the Chandni Chowk portions of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham – and Chennai Express gives him (and his game heroine) plenty of opportunity to cut loose. Even the death of the grandfather is presented as a well-timed gag. After all, as Rahul says, why mourn the demise of someone who’s lived long enough to see the country pass from the AIR era to the age of Twitter? An episode that has Meenamma acting possessed is a hoot, as is the communication between hero and heroine via corny rewordings of popular songs. But an equal number of gags stop short of hitting bull’s-eye. Shetty has become known as a director of blockbuster comedies, but he seems incapable of shaping anything but the most basic kind of humour. There’s a fantastic (in concept) bit with a little person who speaks in guttural clicks, but it results in smiles rather than laughs. And the “meet me in the store room” scene, which promises all sort of confusion between various couples, isn’t developed to its fullest. Shetty settles for an easy finish.
The surprise, though, is that Shetty proves far better with romance. He should really be doing love stories. After a sluggish start, Chennai Express – which, if you must know, is about Rahul and Meenamma finding out that opposites (namely, North and South) attract – really gets going around interval point, when the leads find themselves in an idyllic village with nothing to do but flirt and perhaps fall in love. The gags work. The songs work. (Kashmir main tu Kanyakumari, on screen, is a joy.) And Shah Rukh and Deepika settle into a great groove. Seeing these sweetly lighthearted portions, it becomes clear that the problem with Shetty’s earlier films lay, to a large extent, with the leading man. Ajay Devgn is an impressive brooder, and given the right kind of dramatic part, he can put on a show – but a loose comedian he isn’t. The reason Bol Bachchan and Chennai Express work(ed), at least in parts, is due to the casting of actors far more at home with the silly stuff.
That’s why the closing portions of Chennai Express are all wrong. Suddenly, we see Shah Rukh go all macho on us – this is where a Devgn would have been effortless – and the prolonged brutalities that ensue have no place in a film like this. (There’s a reason Manmohan Desai never got all realistic and bloody about violence in his 1970s phase, which was essentially lighthearted, and which is what Shetty apparently wants to emulate.) Couldn’t they have found a funny way to appease Meenamma’s father – instead of that ridiculously melodramatic speech – and have Rahul walk away with her? Still, given the material, Shetty does more right than wrong – the film could have been called Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. (And special thanks for having the Tamil actors speak Tamil, instead of going all “Madrasi” on us.) Shetty fashions a Shah Rukh Khan showreel, borrowing bits from his greatest hits, and gives us an unfettered avatar of the star that the star himself has seemed somewhat ashamed, of late, to embrace. Who knew that this quintessentially North Indian performer would rediscover himself in the South?
Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.