Chennai Express is all about the mythology of Shah Rukh Khan
It's unfair to call Rohit Shetty’s latest offering a film. Rather, Chennai Express is a gift that keeps giving. The promised box office collections suggest it’s going to give Shetty and all those who have partnered with him a lot of money.
There are gags, explosions, helicopters, pretty settings, fights and even a midget, which means the film is a crowd pleaser. The story is about as watery as the sambar in a bad Udipi restaurant — with clichés floating about like miserable bits of drumstick — which means critics have enough to complain about while writing their reviews.
The profusion of failed logic and terrible acting gives comedians a year’s worth of material. There will be widespread attempts to talk in bokwas (the dialect of Hindi that Deepika Padukone speaks in Chennai Express), which will in no time become a new language and its speakers will demand statehood for Film City.
The only ones who are likely to be disappointed are Shah Rukh Khan’s fans. There’s nothing wrong with him doing a Shettified 40-year-old virgin on paper. On screen, though, this newest Rahul in Khan’s filmography is nothing like the roles that have won so many hearts over the years. “Why is SRK doing dumb crap like this? Why?” one fan said in an agonised whisper during an early screening of Chennai Express. Because Khan wants a massive blockbuster to his name and because he’s smart.
The role of Rahul in Chennai Express is carved out of Khan’s own mythology, but in a way that emphasises Khan’s original appeal of being an average guy, rather than a hero with lineage or muscle. Khan as Rahul repeatedly pokes fun at the roles that have made him a superstar. Regardless of how effective they may be as gags, these little self-referencing jibes depict Khan as one who recognises the absurdity of his stardom. It’s almost like an in-joke between the actor and his audience, independent of the movie and the scenes in which the dialogues are being spoken. Critics may roll their eyes, but audiences delight in these “apna Shah Rukh” moments.
As a hero, Rahul isn’t an underdog (he’s Shah Rukh Khan. He can’t really be an underdog anymore), but he is an idiot. As a romantic lead, his early attempts to impress the girl are cringe-worthy. He’s full of bluster and every time there is a crisis, Rahul scampers to Meena (Padukone) for help. He’s a terrible action hero. Most of the time, he’s running away from a fight and even during the Big Fight of the climax, he doesn’t have that moment when suddenly super strength courses through his banian-clad body. He fights, yes, but mostly, he gets beaten up. He’s no Chulbul or Singham, which is precisely what Khan wants you to note. He’s Shah Rukh and, as Jaaved Jaffrey observed years ago about Maggi Hot n Sweet Tomato Chilli Sauce, he's different.
The expectations from Chennai Express aren’t aesthetic or cinematic. What everyone wanted to know was whether Shah Rukh Khan could do a Salman Khan this Eid, both in terms of box office earnings and playing a larger-than-a-billboard character. We’ll know about the film’s collections soon, but as far as the second point is concerned, Khan took a smart call by being the superstar who plays a wimp.
He’s also the one male actor who isn’t threatened by the heroine even though she has as many funny moments as the hero. By making Bokwas endearing and funny rather than a grating mess of mispronounced syllables, Padukone has succeeded in making Meena one of the more enjoyable parts of Chennai Express. In March, Khan pledged to run the names of the heroines of his films before his own as a show of respect and he’s been true to his word in this film. Padukone’s performance, however, ensures this isn’t simply a patronising gesture. Her performance deserves that credit (especially when compared to Khan’s).
Last year, when the entire country was shaken by the Delhi gang rape, Khan tweeted that he was going to be conscious of how he treats women “so that I gain my daughter’s respect”. Doing a Rohit Shetty film may not have seemed like he was following through on that promise, especially when it was revealed Yo Yo Honey Singh was contributing a song to the soundtrack.
However, Chennai Express is not an obscene film and it’s not the language of Lungi Dance that’s objectionable. In Chennai Express, the romance is chaste, there are few gratuitous shots of heaving bosoms and in the film's climax, Khan’s rousing monologue attacks Indian patriarchs for shackling women and treating them callously. “This Independence Day, no woman should celebrate,” says Khan in Chennai Express, “because thanks to our society and such men, women are not free.”
He then proceeds to get beaten to pulp by Tangaballi, a man who enjoys power, privilege and a body that looks like it’s landscaped. Fate deals similar blows to the common man who tries to go against the rotten system. Protestors in Delhi faced water canons; Rahul has to face Tangaballi. Like them, Rahul isn’t strong enough to win. Still, he fights, despite earlier displays of cowardice, because we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the common man. (Let's ignore how Padukone's Meena is literally held back from standing by her man and as a result is simply a pretty bystander in Khan and Shetty's half-baked campaign to secure women’s independence.)
The role of the iconic romantic hero that made Shah Rukh Khan a superstar has been claimed by Ranbir Kapoor, particularly after the success of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. After the failure of Ra.One, there’s no point re-treading the superhero territory.
Forty-seven is no age to reinvent yourself as the action hero that’s been the rage of late and even if Shah Rukh didn’t have a bad back, the role of Mr Muscle has been taken by Salman Khan. Plus, everyone wants to inherit that title from Salman and so, there’s a profusion of men so beefy that just looking at them makes you want to order a side of mashed potatoes and salad. So what’s a star actor to do to stand out? Khan chose to capitalise on something that no other actor has: himself and what he stands for.
This is why it doesn’t matter whether Chennai Express has a script or a midget or both or none. It has Shah Rukh Khan, breaking down that fourth wall and winking at the audience. It’s a gamble, because Khan is well past his halcyon days and it’s obvious from the hamming in the film that Chennai Express isn’t about acting or story for him. It’s a film that’s meant to make money and make everyone talk about him again. He’s not thalaiva and neither does he aim to be with this film. If anything, he’s Scrappy-doo, all he’s asking is that you cheer and let him at ‘em.