Outside of the occasional North-South crossover, the Mumbai film industry has largely ignored the existence of all points south, with the exception of side characters named Pillai who go “aiyo”. Chennai Express attempts to narrow the divide, but if Shahrukh Khan’s buffoonery and Deepika Padukone’s hardhitting Southern accent had you, then be prepared for me to rain on your parade. Trust me, as much as I was waiting to see this film, I couldn’t help but wonder if director Rohit Shetty’s portrayal of Southerners went too far and exploited offensive stereotypes.
The plot goes roughly like this: Rahul is a dutiful 40-year-old raised by his clingy grandparents. Unmarried and working in the family halwai shop, Rahul is unable to break away from his boring life until his friends suggest a trip to Goa. His plans are hampered when his grandfather dies and he must go at the behest of his grandmother to Rameshwaram for the final rites. But Rahul has other plans. He decides to fool her by boarding a train to the South and then getting off at the next station to meet his friends. Soon he comes to the rescue of Meenamma (Deepika Padukone) while she tries to board the moving train because her father is getting her married off. As her gangster father’s men catch up with her, Meenamma asks Rahul to help her escape. Some comic relief comes in when the two communicate via songs, so that the men who are accompanying her don’t understand. Things get muddled further when he ends up in her village. With escape on her mind, Meenamma lies to her father that Rahul is the man she loves. This, of course, creates a whole lot of tamasha and more hilarious escape attempts.
Shetty’s wafer-thin plot is predictable and not substantial enough to be taken seriously, especially with all the in-your-face product placement. In one scene, Rahul even describes in detail the many functions of his Nokia Lumia. The dialogues aren’t that impressive either. For instance, Khan’s line “Never underestimate the power of a common man” is used way too frequently and often not always at apt moments. Lastly and most importantly, the script goes out of its way to treat its Tamil characters as exotic and otherworldly. The men are, of course, very darkskinned, wearing folded lungis, and don’t speak a word of Hindi, and when they do, it’s often with poor grammar, a la “ayegi, jayeji, khayegi”. And God forbid Bollywood depict the Indian South without conflating it with Rajnikanth. Shahrukh pays an unnecessary tribute to the Southern star—who has absolutely nothing to do with the story or the production— through a meaningless song called “Lungi Dance” in its closing credits. Stereotype much?
Just as bizarrely, the movie also references Khan’s past films, especially Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. His stuttering delivery, scenes of him on the train, and the way he introduces himself as “Myself Rahul” should ring a bell for Khan enthusiasts. (On the bright side, at least he plays a character who is somewhat in the same age bracket as his real self—unlike the 58-year olds who shamelessly try to pull off being 28. Overall, Chennai Express is an offering of the North Indian hegemony that uses the South for little more than laughs. Moreover, Shetty is too busy exalting the iPad, Coke, the Nokia Lumia, and Sharukh Khan’s entire filmography to actually tell a decent story.—REENA KARIM
Published in Masala Lite magazine November 2013, Bangkok Thailand