I've seen a lot of Shah Rukh Khan's films.
In a career going back to the early '90s, this biggest of all Bollywood superstars has created at least a dozen iconic performances that have shaped the way that Bollywood films approach their worldwide audiences. It was his performance in Aditya Chopra's timeless Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Braveheart Wins The Bride) that most boldly approached the NRI (Non-resident Indian) film market and struck deep chords with the Indian diaspora back in 1995.
Since then he's starred in dozens of films, many of them record-breaking blockbusters, and, on more than one occasion, had the opportunity to spoof himself and his characters' ubiquitous presence in films of his own. However, there is no more "meta" exercise in SRK's oeuvre than Rohit Shetty's latest attack on logic, Chennai Express.
Khan plays Rahul (one of many, many inside jokes that will be lost on the audience without in depth knowledge of SRK's films), the scion of a candy magnate in Mumbai who is tasked with delivering his late grandfather's ashes to the holy waters of Rameshwaram. However, he is convinced by his friends to ditch the pilgrimage and instead take a week off in India's party capital of Goa. In an effort to throw his grieving grandmother off his scent, he boards the Chennai Express heading for south India while planning to jump ship at the first station and drive off with his buddies to Goa. The reasoning behind this being that if he dumps the ashes in the waters of Goa, they'll eventually find their way to Rameshwaram. A silly enough premise to be sure, but it only gets sillier when Khan is trapped on the train through a series of goofy circumstances involving a lovely young woman named Meena, played by Deepika Padukone.
Here's where it starts to get complicated for those not familiar with Indian culture, languages, cinema, and/or humor. Meena is a Tamil (Padukone, herself, is actually from Karnataka, which borders Tamil Nadu, but doesn't speak Tamil in real life), and Rahul is north Indian, and speaks Hindi. Chennai Express is largely a comedy of misunderstandings. Rahul gets drug down to Tamil Nadu and involved in local gangster politics when he learns that Meena is the daughter of a local Don who intends to marry her off to a neighboring gang leader in order to strengthen ties between the communities. Rahul mistakenly admits to being in love with Meena and thus begins a massive clusterfuck of a comedy that will leave those not paying close attention begging to rewind.
I'm not going to lie, there are large swaths of Chennai Express that were laugh-out-loud funny. To me. I know SRK's film history. I know that when the lights go down and we hear, "My name is Rahul, perhaps you remember?" we know that it's a reference to Aditya Chopra's Dil To Pagal Hai, and more broadly a reference to the many times that SRK has played a romantic lead named Rahul. When Rahul and Meena decide to speak in code by singing Hindi songs that her Tamil kidnappers can't understand, I know what songs they are, and I know which come from SRK's films and how iconic they are. I know that when Rahul sweeps Meena up onto a moving train that it's a reference to an iconic scene from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
If you don't know this, you'll leave the film scratching your head wondering what everyone was laughing at. There is some really broad comedy in Chennai Express, and films like Golmaal and Bol Bachchan are living proof that director Rohit Shetty is not above such shenanigans, but it is in the small moments that are just for the fans that the real warmth resides.
The problem with building a film around a star's history is that it doesn't leave room for much that's new, and Chennai Express certainly leaves a lot on the table when it comes to delivering new thrills for SRK fans, who are legion. Much like coral reefs expanding through the deaths of their latest additions, much of modern Bollywood is built with a similar layering that rewards old fans, while baffling potential new ones. As a result, without this point of departure, Chennai Express seems like a silly exercise in sight gags, when it is, in fact, a much more clever film than outsiders may believe. It isn't quite good enough to shake the feeling of slightness that follows a film built this way, but it's pretty darned close.
Chennai Express really comes alive in the second half. Once all of the references have been thrown out, the winks and nudges are past, the film really cranks into high gear as what could have been a top notch romantic action comedy in the vein of Romancing the Stone. The problem is that this potential is only glimpsed in the last 40 minutes of the film, and while is is quite solid and heartfelt, it feels as though it's part of a different movie altogether.
I and the other fans in the cinema were simultaneously fist pumping and crying while SRK, quite possibly the absolute worst on-screen fighter in the history of cinema (seriously, check out the train station fight at the end of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge), battles a hoarde of hooligans in the final war for his lover's heart. This was the film I wanted to see, and it made me sad to see what cold have been as the true potential finally began to take shape only moments before the credits rolled.
As one of very few people on the planet who actively seeks out films from more than one of India's numerous regions to review on a regular basis, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the questionable characterizations of Tamils in the film, since it's bound to cause at least a little bit of discussion. Frankly, it's very one-note, but not as bad as one would've suspected from the trailer. Unfortunately, in spite of all of their protestations to the contrary, Shetty and team have managed to make Tamil Nadu, which houses one of India's most vibrant metropoles in Chennai, into a dirt covered backwater filled with country folk who are either illiterate, subservient goondas (thugs) or illiterate but happy hillbillies. Obviously, this is not ideal.
Granted, one can't be expected to show the entire spectrum of a culture in a film every time, but this is pretty stilted. There, I said it. While Shetty doesn't shy away from Tamil Nadu's natural beauty, he's less generous with his depictions of its people, however, that's par for the course in Bollywood. Baby steps.
Chennai Express marks a new record in terms of distribution for Bollywood. The film was estimated to have opened on over 4,200 screens simultaneously on August 8, and is likely to rake in money by the bushel. For many people in more remotely populated areas, this will be their first taste of SRK or Bollywood on the big screen, which is a perplexing move to me, considering just how much the humor in the film depends on prior knowledge. However, this also means that home-bound fans who've never seen SRK on the big screen will be bursting at the seams to indulge their inner fanatics once Chennai Express lands in their town.
Either way, I have to admit I kind of liked the film, I just wish there was a bit more meat on these very familiar bones.