Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why Chennai Express is disappointing

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.


  1. P., I think this is the best rundown of Chennai Express' failings I've seen yet. I happened to see it in the theatre with my sis, and that certainly influenced my experience. I don't know if I would have got through the film if I had watched it online, and yet, it was a nice "middling" entertainment at the time.

    But honestly, given the huge budget--and the point you made about "throwing away the best bits, lingering on the worst"--I think it was fairly disappointing. The film had so much it COULD have done with its' own material . . . and yet, whenever it started treading toward anything truly interesting or amusing (the pretending to be a married couple/sharing a bedroom scene) or the scene you mentioned in the storeroom . . . it was got about a fifth of the screen time allotted to the action sequences or the fight scenes. Every time I thought I was going to see a genuine screwball comedy sequence, it turned into a slapstick caricature of one, rather than the real thing. Like someone tried to cartoonize My Girl Friday.

    One can't help but compare it to DDLJ, yet, while I appreciated the slightly better female agency in the film (in Deepika's character), and the story certainly didn't idolize the role of the authoritarian father (as DDLJ did), you said it best when you asked, "Where's the dil?" We could almost call this film a nice response/homage to DDLJ . . . EXCEPT for the fact that DDLJ is ultra re-watchable, and Chennai Express just isn't at all. Not for me at least. My sis might beg to differ ;)

    1. FC, thanks for your kind words. I do think that the experience of seeing a movie, and especially a comedy, in a theater with an audience is fundamentally different from watching it on DVD. Seeing movies on the small screen mercilessly exposes their weaknesses and neutralizes the impact of space, color, and spectacle. It's one reason I've never been tempted to watch Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) on DVD.

      As Pauline Kael once wrote, "If you watch a great movie on TV, you will be committing an aesthetic crime, of which you are the victim." Not that Chennai Express is a great movie, but I can imagine its comedy, color and spectacle working better on a large screen in a packed theater. That your feelings about the movie parallel mine, though, suggests that I'm not just responding to the diminishment effect of seeing it on DVD.

      I think I may just be allergic to Rohit Shetty's style of filmmaking. We didn't much like Bol Bachchan (2012), and I haven't been tempted to see Singham (2011) or any of the Golmaal series. That Shetty's next two films are Golmaal 4 and Singham 2 will probably mean that our avoidance will continue. In fairness I should point out that his films have found large and appreciative audiences; on the evidence of Chennai Express, though, I just don't think I'll ever find myself among them.

      Thanks for your comment!