Before we begin this review, we’d like to clarify our stand on two burning issues. We do not believe that re-recording “Lungi Dance” as “Veshti Dance” will make it a better song. We do, however, think that Deepika Padukone’s Tamil accent has something to do with the cries of “Tone it down, girl” heard emanating from Mehmood’s grave.
Of course, it’s hardly fair to blame Padukone for what is basically a Hindi film viewer’s impression of a Tamilian speaking Hindi, especially when Chennai Express gets most of its laughs by trafficking in the same stereotypes. The film may be a tribute to Rajinikanth, half its dialogue may be in Tamil, but director Rohit Shetty knows that his audience is sitting squarely north of the Vindhyas. Shah Rukh Khan, the lone non-Tamilian in the film, is a stand-in for a Hindi-speaking audience. And Shetty, the son of a Karnataka action choreographer and importer of South Indian movie tropes to Bollywood, gets to have his cake and eat it too.
Furthering his commitment to playing age-appropriate characters who behave in age-inappropriate ways, Khan is a 40-year-old (probable) virgin called Rahul, whose vacation plans crumble when he helps Meena (Padukone), the absconding daughter of a Tamil don, and her pursuers, aboard the Chennai Express. The reference to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge might induce a chuckle, but then it’s repeated four times and you’re reminded that this is a Rohit Shetty joint. Soon, Meena’s minders have thrown a ticket collector off the train, and Rahul is taken to their village as the “sole witness”. There, faced with Meena’s unsympathetic father (Sathyaraj), her tree-like fiancée (Nikitin Dheer) and a village full of sickle-wielding toughs, he must either find a dictionary or the courage to fight for his love.
Chennai Express is mild fun, if you aren’t too picky about whether you’re laughing with or at the movie. As usual, a lot will depend on how much you’re willing to indulge Shetty’s regular dialogue writers, Farhad-Sajid. No good line goes unpunished – anything remotely funny is repeated – and even Khan in motor-mouth mode can’t save their cheesier contributions. Even the “punch” dialogue – the stuff of Rajni legend – they provide is a head-scratcher. “Never underestimate the power of a common man,” Khan says over and over again. Flattery will get you nowhere.
Still, the one person everyone knows better than to underestimate is Shetty. Each of his last three films, Golmaal 3, Singham and Bol Bachchan, grossed more than Rs 100 crore at the box office. Odds are Chennai Express will do the same. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. One might look at Shetty as the bankable return that gives distributors the confidence to gamble on the Looteras and Theseuses of the world.
A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.