September Issue 2013
Triumph or Trainwreck?
The highest grossing Bollywood film of 2013, Rohit Shetty’s Chennai Express is a silly, slapstick comedy, but entertaining, nevertheless. While critics have lambasted the film for its crude portrayal of South Indians, its over-the-top action scenes and for Shahrukh Khan’s puerile acting (so what else is new?), audiences continue to throng cinema halls.
The film centres around Rahul (Shahrukh Khan), a free-spirited bachelor who lives in Mumbai with his grandparents. To celebrate his 40th birthday, Rahul plans to go on a vacation to Goa with his friends, but his plan is cut short when his grandfather dies a few days before his trip commences. Rahul’s grandmother tells him about how his grandfather had wanted his ashes to be dispersed in the waters surrounding Rameswaran, and that it is Rahul’s duty to fulfill his grandfather’s last wish. But Rahul is bent upon making his trip to Goa, and decides to scatter the ashes there instead. His plans go awry when his grandmother decides to accompany him to the train station, and sees him off on the Chennai Express.
What happens next changes his life and puts an end to his carefree ways forever. As the train picks up speed, Rahul sees a beautiful girl (Deepika Padukone) desperately running to catch it. He helps her get on (a scene reminiscent of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) — something he could later brag to his friends about. However, Rahul is in for a rude shock when four large and dishevelled men jostle in right behind her. The girl, named Meenalochini, is the daughter of a powerful don in a village in Tamil Nadu, attempting to escape an arranged marriage. And the men tailing her are her “cousin-brothers,” assigned to bring her back to her father’s village. In the process, they take Rahul hostage as well.
The rest of the film is action-packed, featuring wild chases, hilarious dialogues and a host of oddball characters. One point that becomes apparent early on (other than the fact that the film is sponsored by Nokia Lumia) is that Chennai Express is a film about Khan as much as a film starring him. My Name Is Khan, Dil Se, DDLJ…the film contains references to each of these films and more. There is even a scene in which Rahul recounts how both his parents died in a car accident (it is well-known that Khan himself was orphaned at a young age), and Meenalochini teases him about being a 50-year-old, to which he indignantly retorts, “Main tumhe 50 saal ka lagta hun!” (Khan is 47, and often plays much younger characters).
For his fans, Khan can do no wrong. He may lack the versatility that is expected of a great actor, but he has developed a style of his own that audiences can’t seem to get enough of. The other Khans of Bollywood may be ‘real’ actors who win accolades from critics, but Shahrukh Khan is…well, Shahrukh Khan.
Released a few days before Independence Day, the film also contains a reference to 66 years of India’s independence, with Rahul making an uncharacteristically serious comment on how many women in India are still not free to choose their life partners. Rahul’s catchphrase is, “don’t underestimate the power of the common man,” which he repeats throughout the film when confronted with situations much larger and men much more wealthy and powerful than him.
But while the subcontinent may be rid of colonial rule, racist stereotypes prevail. Many South Indians have expressed their distaste for the film, which features thugs and dim-witted characters with black skin and wild appearances. While some of the stereotypes can be brushed off — incidentally, does everyone in Tamil Nadu really carry a sickle at all times? — other representations make one slightly uncomfortable.
Nonetheless, Shetty does a fantastic job, with cinematography that looks straight out of an ‘Incredible India’ advert. And in a clever move, Shetty has also included the ‘Lungi Dance’ song, which is a tribute to the demigod of the South, actor Rajnikanth.
Obviously, the film is not intended to be an accurate portrayal of South India; its only aim is to entertain audiences and make them laugh. And on that score, Chennai Express certainly delivers.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.