Mayank Shekhar | Last Modified - Aug 09, 2013, 03:27 AM IST
I saw Chennai Express about a month back. This was on a road-trip in Tamil Nadu. I watched a long set of semi-decrepit bogeys pass by lush green meadows. The name over the windows looked familiar. It was a train of course, full of second-class non-AC compartments, which takes around 24 hours with 20 stops to ferry from Mumbai to Chennai. Surely the passengers, frying in the merciless heat, don’t have care much for the inconvenience inside. They always knew what they were getting into.
That may not be so much the case with audiences of this film named after that train. Given the trailer, viewers in the theatre will probably look out for two things: lots of crackerjack humour, equal amounts of earth-shaking, gravity-defying assault on human bodies, cars, jeeps, and even the train—if budgets allow for it. Throughout, at least I couldn’t spot a single moment that had me even mildly chuckling. I didn’t hear too many people howling away from the seats behind me either. The stunts and car-nage is limited to two sequences—one before and the other after the interval—which is a small fraction for a film that clocks over 140 minutes. So should you feel cheated, sitting in this loud, chugging train to Chennai? Perhaps. Biting into funny parts first, let me express why.
The lead character here runs a halwai shop called why-why. His name is Rahul: “Naam toh suna hoga,” he asks. This gentleman is of course Shah Rukh Khan, lest you forget, because every few minutes he chooses to remind you of it, referencing his previous films in dialogues, “My name is Rahul, I am not a terrorist” (My Name Is Khan), or songs “Chhamak Chholo” (RA.One), “Dard-e-Disco” (Om Shanti Om), or lyrics (Tamil words of the track “Jiya Jale” from Dil Se), or just randomly remembering “kali billi” from Don. This is supposed to be a spoof on SRK by Shah Rukh Khan, except you’re not sure exactly what the joke is.
The comedy is basically centred on a North Indian guy who finds himself in the middle of a South Indian village inhabited by ghastly looking, savage like, unkempt medieval men, who wield sickles and growl in a crazy language that our Punjabi fellow cannot understand. As if to compensate for racist humour, Rahul also visits another South Indian village, which is full of genteel and civilised folks. The film is one-fourth in Tamil, three-fourths in Hindi, subtitles to either is unnecessary, the dialogues are banal to begin with, the action is equally lame. Soundtrack (Vishal, Shekhar) is the only saving grace. The aim I suppose is to take a tent-pole Bollywood ‘festival film’ and roll over down South with it. The end credits roll with a whole song dedicated to Thalaivar (Rajnikanth). Just so you know: Eid wishes everyone a Happy Rajnikanth!
The picture is directed by Rohit Shetty. So far all his films have starred Ajay Devgn, who usually plays an under-stated sort of figure in a movie that is seriously loud and melodramatic. Khan instead does an over-the-top act in a picture that is already over-the-top. This can get quite jarring obviously. Rarely do you see a director’s name hold such prominence in posters and promos in a film that is headlined by a super-star with a huge following of his own. Shetty deserves this because his last few movies, which have either been remakes (Bol Bachchan, Singham) or a franchise flick (Golmaal 3) have apparently crossed the Rs 100 crore mark in box-office returns. This movie’s budget likewise would probably be close to Rs 100 crore as well. I’m told Shetty himself picked up Rs 20 crore to direct it.
Still, the picture looks tackier than many low-budget stuff you may have seen lately. Lighting is shadowy in parts, camera sometimes zooms in on the hero’s make-up, key sequences inside a running train or car appear as if they’ve been shot with a screen in the background. None of this should matter to a crowd hoping to be entertained somehow. The lead actor Khan has spent weeks before this film’s release promoting and psyching up audiences for precisely that purpose, from every available window, hopping from a talent hunt to a stand-up show to a soap opera, besides news conferences, press interviews. A spontaneous entertainer at heart, he is hugely amusing in his public appearances.
You wish he could use some of that time and talent into the writing and making of the film instead. The planning I am sure is perfect. Deepika Padukone plays a South Indian girl Meena-mma (in an awesome accent, if you were watching the promo; an annoying one if you were sitting through an entire movie). Taking a dig at SRK or Rahul’s old age, she wonders if he is over 50 years old now. Rahul is highly offended. “This is such massy, single screen humour,” he says, making known the genre of his flick where the face of whitening creams and multi-national brands gets his hands dirty and face bruised in a dusty village beating up goons, supplanting himself from Switzerland and cushy multiplexes into South India and small town Indian theatres, hopefully, trying too hard to please. Good for him.
The hero and heroine meet on the train Chennai Express. She is going home escorted by her dad’s security guards so she can be married off. He is off to Goa. Does he love her? No. Why does he just not leave? I don’t know. Why haven’t you left yet? I know. You’ve paid for the ticket? Yes. Now just sit back and suffer.