Note: These are the impressions of a Chennai-ite who watched the movie in Chennai with a predominantly Hindi audience
If you have an agile, good-looking and super-willing star named Shah Rukh Khan and a stunner like Deepika Padukone, you don’t need a script and logic. Just go out and shoot some mayhem - you most likely will end up with a weird masala like “Chennai Express”.
Before the south Indians, or Madrasis like me, complain that the movie is full of unseemly southern stereotypes - men, women and the settings - let’s completely pardon director Rohit Shetty. To be fair to him, he hasn’t created any of them, but handpicked one by one from the mindless Tamil masala films of the last 15 years or so.
Looks like he didn’t even need a casting director - almost all the Tamil characters that dominate Chennai Express are straight out of various Tamil masala films, including the XXL sized thugs that one see in the initial frames of the movie, the scruffy rowdy-gangs, the pot-bellied men and the Kancheevaram clad old women that perhaps will remind you of Mani Ratnam.
Shetty has created a Tamil milieu not from real life, but from Kollywood masala. In this milieu, there are no real people, but only sickle-wielding feudal-rowdies, their hirelings, Indian SUVs (most commonly Tata Sumos) that topple and go up in flames for no reason, loud screams and choreographed thuggery.
It’s a fitting payback because this milieu is repulsive.
Chennai Express is the name of a train that goes to Chennai from Mumbai and the story is about a run-away girl (Deepika) with an unpronounceable Tamil name (Meenalochani Azhagusundaram), and a boy (Rahul, played by Shah Rukh) trying to cheat his grandmother who wants him to immerse her husband’s ashes in Rameshwaram.
He doesn’t want to do that, but go to Goa with his friends instead. To fool his grief-stricken grandmother, he gets into a Chennai-bound train with a plan to get down at Kalyan to join his friends; but the plan goes awry. The train journey alters his plans and he ends up in Tamil fantasy lands and of course, chaos ensues.
The movie is about this chaos and the romance that germinates out of it- so is it a comedy, drama or pure nonsense?
At best, it is a half-baked comedy except for the initial train scenes. And some situations work purely because of Shah Rukh Khan and his comic timing. The rest of the “comic” situations are all contrived and hardly evoke any laughter. They are actually boring.
Is there drama?
No, there are traces of attempts, but they don’t work - not even in the climax scenes when a pining Shah Rukh endures severe pain for his girl.
Perhaps yes, and most of it.
Deepika doesn’t have much to do except speaking like an off-screen Hema Malini and dancing gracefully. She is also tasked with explaining to Shah Rukh the socio-cultural details of her Tamil lands and the lead characters including her father, who is a “dawn (don)”. However, one has to admit that there is tremendous on screen chemistry between Shah Rukh and Deepika, and they make an awesome pair.
Chennai Express is purely for Shah Rukh fans. He looks great and does all that he has done a hundred times in his movies - he sings, dances, fights, breaks his bones, somersaults, bleeds, cries and even spoofs himself. The rest is all pure prop.
What looks nonsense to others might be great fun for his fans and they will be happy that he is instrumental in taking the “Enna Rascala” stereotype to the next level.
Is Rohit Shetty somewhere inspired by the Rajinikanth idiom?
The closest that one can compare this film with is a hyper-stylised Rajinikanth movie where even romantic situations are unreal. Given the recent Bollywood blockbuster trend of borrowing the kitsch and action of Tamil movies (thanks to stunt masters such as FEFSI Vijayan and Peter Hain and directors such as Prabhu Deva and KS Ravi Kumar), it’s eminently possible that Shetty and Shah Rukh have attempted a Rajini plot and failed.
What perhaps they didn’t realise is that the Rajini formula involves enormous craft and is not easy to replicate.
The unbearable Lungi dance, as the credits roll, is a certain giveaway of a failed inspiration.