So I was perusing Netflix to find something to watch last night when I see in my Twitter feed that Film Crit Hulk has reviewed Dhoom 3. Dhoom 3 is currently doing a crazy amount of business in India and around the world. Obviously, it being a Bollywood film, there’s been pretty much zero coverage by mainstream western media. The film is out in the UK but the nearest cinema to me showing it is a fair old journey away and I’m quite broke right now. So how’s about I review the Bollywood film that was setting the theatres alight earlier this year before Dhoom 3 came out, and more importantly happens to be available on the UK Netflix. That film is the Shah Rukh Khan starring Chennai Express and after the link is words what do make up this review.
If you’ve read my review of the Indian cinematic classic Sholay you’ll know that I have a lot of love for Bollywood. Also a high tolerance of the harshly conflicting tones that many Bollywood films contain. These films are often all things to all people. The Bollywood industry has, over many years, perfected the art of making films that can be farcical comedies, over the top action films, melodramatic romances and musicals all in the space of a few hours whilst still maintaining character and storytelling as a core component of the film. If all those aspects work you’ll often have a film which will blow your mind grapes to pieces at the sheer joy-splosion you just witnessed. If one of those aspects fails then usually you will still enjoy the film if the other parts manage to match, and beat, expectations. This is usually because the films will switch up tones and genres as it progresses with frequency. But, if a film decides to stick with one tone for too long, and that tone doesn’t work… well, you may have a problem. Chennai Express comes dangerously close to having this problem.
In the first hour or so of Chennai Express the film maintains a strongly farcical slapstick comedy tone. This is complete with Looney Tunes sound effects and over-plotted comedic sequences. The film tells the story of Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) who, at the age of 40, believes he hasn’t had a chance to live his life yet. He’s lived under the roof of his Grandparents running their sweet shop and never been able to attract a woman that will take this confectioner seriously. To be fair, he is a detestable klutz. Very early one he pretty much says that he can’t wait for his Grandfather to die so he may go live his life. When his Grandfather does die, just as he was about to experience his 100th birthday, Rahul is tasked with taking his ashes to Rameswaram to send them out to see he sets up a plan with his friends to go to Goa and let the ashes go there, figuring it won’t make a difference because the water will eventually reach Rameswaran. He lies to his Grandmother about this and, as part of his plan, gets on the Chennai Express train so she believes his is carrying out his Grandfather’s last wish. His plan is to jump off at the next station and head off to Goa. Remember, this is all presented with slapstick comedy.
When he reaches the next station Rahul realises he’s left the ashes on the train. He runs back to get them and just as he’s planning to get off, and also as the train starts to depart, a girl comes running for the train. In a scene that parodies a sequence from a 1995 Shah Rukh Khan film called Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Rahul reaches out to pull her on board, making sure to joke that he’s done that before. He then kindly helps 4 increasingly large gentlemen on board too. Unfortunately these gentle men are her to kidnap the girl and take her back to her father in southern India, and now Rahul is stuck on the train with them. For the proceeding 50 minutes (this is all in the first 10 minutes by the way) we have a series of comedic sequences as the girl, Meena (Deepika Padukone) tries to convince her father that she wishes to marry Rahul. Her father is a crime lord in the south and has plans to marry Meena off to the leader of another crime gang in order for him to gain more power. Rahul doesn’t speak the Tamil dialect of the people in the south and so we now have large amounts of fish out of water comedy to deal with as he frequently gets himself into all kinds of trouble by generally being an over confident idiot. Remember, this man is 40 years old.
This first hour is troublesome as it constantly plays for laughs against the seriousness of the situations. Now this isn’t just a little comedy, this is constant Three Stooges style silliness through all these sequences. And not the real Three Stooges. The Farrelly Brother’s Three Stooges. What especially doesn’t help is that Shah Rukh Khan is not a gifted comedic actor. He’s a superb action, romance or dramatic actor, but this sort of comedy is not his strong point. It’s like he’s seen a early Jim Carrey film and decided he can out-zany him despite having no idea how. As you watch all this cringe inducing “comedy” you’re reminded of what promise the film’s opening shot gave you. The film starts with a stylised, Breaking Bad-esque, through the floor shot which tilts and pans up and around to a beaten and bloody Rahul as a massive group of thugs come running at him. Rahul is armed with a shovel and he swings it right at the screen, which is promptly cut to black. This promise reminds you that there is something else to come. Just over an hour in we get our first taste of the something else, and holy mother of Gawd is it awesome.
Rahul and Meena make their escape from the Tamil village which promptly initiates one of the most awesome, stunt filled car chases you could imagine. I’m pretty much convinced a few stuntmen died making this sequence. The action is like a hybrid of classic chase, stylised Hollywood sequences and stunts ripped straight from 70s Ozplotation film. Most importantly, and so much unlike any recent Hollywood counterparts, you can see what is happening. It is also incredibly colourful. The sequence comes out of nowhere so quickly and is so spectacular that in the space of a few minutes you’re rolling your jaw up off the floor and politely asking the film to give you more.
From this point on the film gradually tones the comedy down, although it never fully goes away, and the character interactions are focused more on the potential for romance between Rahul and Meena. This leads to a series of well staged and memorable sequences as our two leads struggle with who they are. Meena is from a bad family but doesn’t want to be the bad girl used as a pawn in a power struggle by her father. Rahul was raised in comfort, albeit without his parents who died when he was young, but he constantly makes poor decisions in his life due to his cowardice and desire he has to live his life on his terms. Both characters want to be their own people and gradually they come to feel that they could do this together. There is all of one scene in the first hour that has the slightest hint of the characters sharing any charm, as they sing in Hindi to communicate without her father’s Tamil speaking goons listening in. After that car chase the film constantly provides these moments that the earlier part of the film was so sorely lacking.
In the second half there’s a number of story moments and character interactions from the first that gradually get recalled and layered with the charm that was missing the first time around. The centrepiece of the romance scenes is a ritual in a village the two leads must complete to maintain their ruse as a run away married couple. The sequence involved Rahul carrying Meena up 300 stairs to a temple. They are the only couple to complete the task and in doing so Rahul proves just how determined he can be, Meena sees he may be an actual potential love match for herself and the romance element finally hits it’s full stride in a near euphoric way. This is the sort of scene Shah Rukh Khan has always been best at. The heroic drama and romance all worked into one scene where his perfectly quaffed hair reminds you constantly of just how dashing he can be. Errr, if you were a young lady I imagine.
As you’d expect there are musical numbers, including a cameo song by Bollywood actress Priyamani. They have a strong pop and dance influence behind them, as is often the case in modern Hindi films. They aren’t so frequent that they distract but I would have gladly taken 15-20 minutes off that first hour and replaced it with a few extra songs. The film has moments of being shot very well, which are then undermined by the occasional shoddy digital backdrop. Which is strange because there’s quite a bit of very well done digital effects in the film, especially whilst the leads are still on the Chennai Express train itself.
Despite the struggle that is the first hour, Chennai Express explodes into something far, far, more enjoyable once it passes its comedic hump. The second half is almost non-stop fist pumping fun with only a handful of moments that fail to gel. I can accept, though, that my issues with the comedy could very much be a cultural issue. Slapstick, almost cartoon like humour is very popular in India and many parts of Asia. I’ve seen Thai comedies where the cartoon sound effects almost drown out the cast’s performances. By the time Chennai Express is over you will be sure that you have just watched a fun, satisfying film. Its grating clash of story and tone will make the first hour a bit of a slog to get through but, believe me, it is worth the effort. If Rahul was a younger character I’d suggest the film was about a man giving up his immaturity to embrace more heroic, masculine, ideals. But he is 40 and so I just can’t excuse how silly the comedy was in the first hour when compared to the more rounded tone of the second. Don’t let that put you off watching this film and embracing Bollywood cinema though. There’s some excellent films out there waiting to be discovered by a new audience and, hopefully, the success of films such as this and Dhoom 3 will help expose this wonderful realm of cinema to more people, such as yourself.