Chennai Express: Funny Despite Itself

“I don’t make my movies for intellectuals,” the director of Chennai Express, Rohit Shetty, is supposed to have said. I can well imagine him making that statement, sneer on his face, contemplating his previous box office successes like Bol Bachchan and Golmaal, all made with similar LCD ingredients of slapstick humor, over-the-top acting, and overwrought emotion.

But a sweet seller (bear with me on the analogy for a bit) is not an intellectual, and a good one will know exactly how much ghee and sugar to put in the halva without needing a culinary degree. If the halva is over-sweet and dripping with fat, people will still eat it, and maybe even relish that first decadent bite, but at the end of it all they will be left with is a stomach ache and a desire never to repeat that mistake.

Which is how I felt after watching Chennai Express, a tale of a North Indian halvai (and there’s the analogy returning to roost) and a South Indian lovely who meet by chance on a train and have adventures on the run.

To be fair, CE is pretty funny in bits; the sequence where Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan spoofing himself) pulls Meenamma (the lovely Deepika Padukone) on to the train, DDLJ style, is hilarious. Even though the dialogues are just plain awful, the situational comedy and Padukone’s perfectly pitched turn as a Madrasi lass are enough to have you in splits through about 70% of the movie, especially if you are sitting in a theater surrounded by tweens. The kids laughed continuously, despite missing the Hindi-Tamil jokes and the SRK references, and we adults laughed along.

But, fair warning, the last 20 minutes are just horrendous and there is a sequence involving a small person which is not just insensitive but bizarrely incomprehensible and left us all scratching our heads. I happen to be a fan of SRK, but ever since R.A.One, I’ve been wondering what the heck happened to the guy. His facial contortions, his weird grimaces and mannerisms – were they always there or is this some pathetic attempt to live up to his superstar expectations?

What saves the movie (and SRK’s butt) is Padukone, whose performance leaves me no doubt that she is the next big thing in mainstream Bollywood. She delivers her cheesy lines with aplomb, completely getting into the skin of what can only be described as a mythical Southy stereotype, the kind once popularized by Mehmood with his “aiyyo-jees.” The role is a complete departure (as much it can be in a Hindi movie) from her successful outing in Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani, and she does it justice in a way that really exposes SRK’s  shortcomings.

It is almost a pity that Chennai Express (as I write this review) is turning out to be a big box office success, because it sends a message to other filmmakers that it is okay to skimp on quality dialogue, it is okay to hire ensemble actors who suck so badly they must be related to the producer, it is okay to pair an over-the-hill lead with a young, gorgeous twenty-something, it is okay to poke fun at disabled people, and it is okay to engage in the worst kind of Southern stereotyping so long as you have a formula and a hook that brings the audience in.

That the crassly commercial Lungi Dance was added as an afterthought suggests even Shetty had some doubts about the viability of a movie where so many aspects were shortchanged.

That the movie is going to be a blockbuster suggests that all those doubts will be erased. Sigh! I gorged on the halva yesterday, but today I’m feeling sick.

*LCD = Lowest Common Denominator

2 thoughts on “Chennai Express: Funny Despite Itself

  1. Anjaan

    Ramesh sir !?
    I thought it was, always, a great review with the right comparison to an over sweet halwa!

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