We're diehard Shah Rukh Khan fans, and think Deepika Padukone is often the best thing about the movies she's in (Exhibit A: Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013)). And we've been wondering how long it was going to take before a producer figured out that the charming jodi of Om Shanti Om (2007) should be reunited.
So why did we find Rohit Shetty's Chennai Express (2013) to be so disappointing? Let me count the ways:
1. It starts out as a parody of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and ends up as a remake: The woman-running-for-the-train scene from DDLJ has been appropriated by many filmmakers, often with parodic intent. (For my money it was most effectively used in Dor (2006), where Ayesha Takia's character reaches out for the hand of Gul Panang.) Chennai Express offers the parody with a bit extra—four extra, in fact—and as Rahul (Shah Rukh) hauls person after person onto the train we have a growing (and well-founded) sense of foreboding:
This scene is also a quick introduction to Rohit Shetty's directorial style: present a joke, repeat it until it's no longer funny, and then keep repeating it in the hope that it starts to become funny again—which, amazingly enough, it often does.
The woman racing for the train is Meena (Deepika), and the DDLJ echoes should tell you how the rest of the film unfolds. Yes, there's a stern, unbending father, and yes, there's a violent and completely unsuitable guy to whom (against her will) Meena has been promised in marriage. Will Rahul and Meena fall in love, and will Rahul attempt to convince her stern, unbending father to agree to their marriage? If you don't know the answer to those questions, you're sentenced to a remedial viewing of DDLJ.
But just as DDLJ ends with a scene of violence that almost ruins the movie for me, so does Chennai Express. Only the scene in Chennai Express is far more violent and goes on far longer. While dishoom-dishoom has a long and unavoidable history in masala movies, the hyper-realism (spraying blood, thudding soundtrack) of the scene in Chennai Express kept my finger firmly on the fast-forward button. And why, apart from the DDLJ parallelism, is the heroine left to stand and helplessly watch the hero getting beaten up by a gang of thugs? Hema Malini's Geeta (from Seeta aur Geeta (1972)) or Fearless Nadia might have something to say to the filmmakers about that.
2. The lack of songs: "Great songs" is one of Beth Loves Bollywood's criteria for masala films, but Chennai Express felt song-poor to me. Of the film's seven songs, one is essentially background music and one (the Rajinikanth tribute "Lunghi Dance / Thalaiva") happens over the closing credits, leaving only five for the movie itself.
Perhaps I'm mis-remembering, but I think only one dance number happens before the intermission, and it's an item. On a first listen, I didn't find Vishal-Shekar's efforts to be particularly memorable—at least, in a good way. Learning to say "hichaka-michaka" (from "1-2-3-4 Get On the Dance Floor") was fun, though.
And given that Chennai Express features two stars who can actually dance, if not perhaps quite at a Hrithik Roshan-Aishwarya Rai level, it felt like some opportunities were missed. Deepika has a few seconds of long-limbed gracefulness towards the end of "Titli," (at 3:25, to be precise), but it's not nearly enough:
3. Where is the dil? In Veer-Zaara (2004), Shah Rukh's Veer impulsively decides to help Preity Zinta's Zaara on her road trip through India to immerse the ashes of her Hindu ayah. Since Zaara is a Pakistani Muslim, this tells us something about her loyalty, courage, and sense of familial obligation. And since Veer is an Indian Air Force officer, this tells us something about his humanity and sense of duty. And when Zaara asks Veer to participate in the immersion ritual, we know that a deep emotional bond has been formed between them.
In Chennai Express, Shah Rukh's Rahul (a joking reference to previous characters he's played in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), among others) must immerse the ashes of his demanding, crotchety grandfather. Of course, Rahul learns that he must do the right thing and honor the wishes of the dead despite their shortcomings in life and his own inclinations to take the easy way out. But somehow, despite the significant looks exchanged by Rahul and Meena during the immersion, it just doesn't have the same resonance.
4. Throwing away the best bits, lingering on the worst: In the middle of the film one of its best scenes is thrown away. While they're staying together in Meena's father's crowded house, Rahul wants to see Meena alone for a few minutes to plan their escape. He scrawls "Meet me in the storeroom" on a piece of paper and throws it at her. She reads it, signals to him with her eyes, then crumples up the message and throws it away. Only, it hits someone else, who thinks that it's a message that Meena intends for him. Then he throws it away, and it hits someone else...Later, ten people arrive in the darkened storeroom, each seeking someone who is looking for someone else. It's a brilliant moment. I understand that it's an homage to a scene from Muthu, a 1995 Tamil film starring Rajinikanth and Meena, but it also echoes the garden scene in Act IV of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Alas, the scene is far too short and most of its comic potential is unrealized. And then Shetty moves on to another lengthy car chase, another confrontation with thugs, or another bit of slapstick.
So despite SRK's charm and Deepika's grace and beauty, Chennai Express sinks under the weight of a rehashed scenario, mediocre songs and picturizations, and way too much dishoom-dishoom. I recommend instead taking the local, and lingering over the better SRK films to which this one pays both too much and too little homage.