I always remembered this as a really good movie, but I hadn’t watched it straight through in a few years and thought maybe I was mis-remembering. No, it really is a really good movie!
This is the last truly all around commercially successful film Shahrukh Khan has made. After ruling the 90s, setting records with DDLJ, then breaking them with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and breaking them again with Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, and again with Om Shanti Om, this was his last record breaker and the start of his long slow slide towards artistic fulfillment and away from audience pleasing fun. And if Zero fails today, if this truly is the last big crowd pleaser of his career, well, it’s a good ending! It’s entertaining, it’s clever, it’s fun, it’s light, and it even has a message at the end. It’s the kind of movie you start and think “I’ll turn it off at the slow parts”, only to discover there are no slow parts.
This isn’t a tightly plotted film. There is a lot of back and forth and dead ends along the way. But it is a tightly put together narrative. Every little plot shift and twist is calculated to keep the story bouncing along, keep the audience interested, and allow the actors and the characters to reveal different parts of themselves.
And most of all, this is a film that works with the ingredients it has. I cannot picture anyone but Shahrukh and Deepika in the roles they have. Or any director but Rohit Shetty making the film. Or any setting but a travel through southern India. That is not to say it couldn’t have been made a different way, but once the project was set, it was designed around these factors in such a way that they could not have been changed or replaced. Compared with Shetty’s next film with Shahrukh, Dilwale, where the 4 leads, plus the Goa location, plus Shetty’s direction, all feel like they could have easily been swapped out for someone else. Kajol for Juhi or Rani, Shahrukh for Ajay Devgan, Kriti for practically anyone, Varun for Arjun Kapoor. And as for Shetty himself, he brought a certain humor and brightness to it, but I could imagine Aziz Mirza or Anubhav Sinha pulling this particular story off as well. But Chennai Express, that is distinctly Rohit Shetty from the first shot to the end.
Even the plots tell you the difference. Dilwale is essentially Baasha with a twist, the simple idea of an ex-gangster who has gone straight and started a new life and everyone (including his family) being surprised to learn of his past when he has to confront a new threat. And the twist of his past including an old love who has resurfaced in the present and is a fellow gangster. That central story structure, once you graft on the love story between the two young relatives of the old loves, is enough to hold the whole thing up. Slot in any actors, any director, it will still work on story alone.
Chennai Express barely has a story. And that is what makes it a great movie, because everything else has to be stronger to make up for that. It’s a long rambling travelogue, and along the way there is every bit of light Rohit Shetty humor to make the time pass pleasantly, every bit of Shahrukh charm and goofiness, every Deepika smile and subtle emotion, and every gorgeous landscape you could want in the background. Forget the story, the story doesn’t matter. It’s the songs, the sights, the laughs, the performances, that’s what makes the whole thing flow along until you suddenly look up and realize it’s two hours later and you’ve watched the whole thing straight through again.
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Like I said, there is barely a story. Deepika is running away from her family, including her powerful village headman father. Shahrukh is trying to go on a boys getaway to Goa and gets caught up in her troubles. He keeps trying to get away from her and then getting sucked back in. They travel all over south India together, and in the end he takes her back to her village and confronts her father and surprises her by declaring his love. There’s no real beginning-middle-end, there’s no central conflict, it’s all just car chases and funny scenes and slowly falling in love for no particular reason.
It’s that slowly falling in love which I like the best. That, plus the characters. Which kind of goes together, the slowly falling in love works because we feel like these are two real people who are building a real connection. And they have to feel like two real people if we are going to watch a whole movie about them falling in love (again, contrast it with Dilwale where everyone falls in love at first sight for no particular reason). This big silly movie is secretly as much of a character piece as Jab Harry Met Sejal, and telling the same story, a man and a woman with nothing in common, thrown together over and over again until they discover they are in love.
This movie is the best film Shahrukh has made playing his age. His character is 40 in the film, at the time it was made he was 48. Which is close enough for movie purposes, and far closer than in any of his other recent films. And in the film, he plays an immature older guy, stunted romantically, trying to act younger than he is and pretend to be cooler than he is. I suppose in some far earlier draft of the script he could have been a college kid looking forward to a getaway with college friends. But by the time the script hit the screen, Shahrukh’s character had been changed into an aging lothario who was less a ladies man and more an embarrassment. His early interactions with Deepika, with her family, no one ever saw him as a real threat. Even the audience didn’t see him as a threat, just a joke, the old man trying to be young. His common through line in the film is “don’t underestimate the power of the common man”. And he is a common man. A funny useless shallow common man. The comic relief in any other film, not the hero. And then, somehow, he stays the comic relief but finds some nobility in it too. And we can see and understand why Deepika comes to love him, because when the going gets tough, he does what he has to do.
And then there’s Deepika. She is running away from her wedding not because she hates the groom or hates her father, but just because she doesn’t want to get married. And she isn’t running in desperation, she has a plan, she has friends, she doesn’t really “need” Shahrukh. This is no damsel in distress. In fact, now that I think about it, there is no moment of the film where Shahrukh “saves” her. Instead, she saves herself using him as a tool, or else she is the one to save him. She doesn’t fall in love with him because he saves her, but because he is kind and funny and has an inner strength and dignity that he doesn’t allow himself to show easily. Because he never makes her feel like a damsel in distress, just a partner that he can fight with and tease and respect, and sometimes carry up the side of the mountain when he really has to.
I was thinking, watching the movie, that the whole thing is structured around 3 times Shahrukh leaves Deepika and 3 times she tries to leave him. Deepika wants to get away from Shahrukh immediately, asks for his phone and tries to ignore him, wanting just to get back with her friends. Fate keeps them together, when her cousins find the phone and keep them captive together.
The first time Shahrukh tries to leave Deepika, she is planning a careful escape from her family house and offers to help him get out too (since it is her fault he is stuck there, thanks to her lie that she is in love with him in an effort to prevent her wedding). But he gets drunk, dances with a pretty girl, and then shows off his motorcycle tricks and uses that as a way to get out of the house. It’s all the worst parts of his boy-man vision of himself, his idea that growing up means drinking and partying and playing tricks and being somehow smarter than everyone else.
The second time, fate brings them back together. The whole bit where he accidentally gets on a boat and ends up arrested as smuggler is a really ridiculous plot cul-de-sac, but works for the character and their relationships, it shows that this time he was forced back to her, he isn’t adult enough to want to face his problems head on. But also, this time he needs her to escape, he uses her just as she used him, it balances the scales. And then he leaves her again, mutually. She has no respect for him and won’t ask him to stay, instead yells at him for ruining her father’s car (in the hands of another actress, this would come off as immature and petty, but Dips convincingly plays it as a woman who loves her father and is angry on his behalf that his car is ruined). And he is immature and over confident and takes off with out her. Again, there is a plot cul-de-sac with his brief travels alone, but again the purpose is to show growth as he comes back. And Deepika must have had some growth as well, because she is there waiting for him. He still won’t admit he is back because he needs her or wants to be there, puts on a show of confidence, and she doesn’t truly want him with her, just accepts the basic fact that traveling with a man is more convenient, even if he is just a man-shaped tool she is using.
This time, they are together honestly. Before, at her family house, they didn’t get a chance to talk, they didn’t really know each other (he still thought of her as a pretty girl, she thought of him as useless and uninteresting). Now, they start out in anger which leads to honesty. There is the first fight, that leads to them both having honest but low opinions of each other (Shahrukh thinks she is stuck up and overly confident and using him, Deepika thinks he is cowardly and foolish). And then the second fight later that night when Shahrukh teases Deepika about her mother and learns that her mother is dead. This is where things start to change, for the characters and the audience. Until this moment, they have both been charming and amusing people, but we didn’t really care for them. If this scene had gone another way, if Deepika had mentioned her mother’s death angrily, or burst into tears, she would have seemed like a weak person hiding behind a strong front. If Shahrukh had been overly sympathetic, he would have come off as patronizing, or if he had been overly embarrassed, he would have seemed shallow. But instead, Deepika said it like a fact, like it hurt her but she wasn’t going to ask for sympathy. And Shahrukh responded with deep empathy, not giving her the pity she wouldn’t want but instead just the understanding from his own experiences.
This is the kind of character work that is rare in any film, Hindi or any other industry. Back at the start of the film, Shahrukh’s voice over explained the death of his parents. And while he complained about his grandfather, we also saw that he answered his phone calls and got him a wonderful birthday present. We have been seeing the shallow silly side of him for this whole film, but there were clues all along that there was a deeper kinder side too. The same with Deepika, she has been so strong and confident for the whole film, but we saw her big loving family and how she is clearly proud of them even as she runs from them. Learning that her mother is dead fills in so many gaps, why she feels the need to be so strong, why she has such a hard time talking to her father, why she can’t seem to open up and communicate with anyone (Shahrukh, or her father, or anyone else we see her with) and instead runs from her emotions. And these two characters, in this moment, reveal why they might be perfect for each other. His silliness breaks through her reserve, her strength pulls out his dignity, his lifetime of childishness and spoiling has prepared him to meet her lifetime of growing too old too fast.
And so we have the 3rd time Shahrukh leaves her. When he is running away from himself as much as her. After days spent in the village together, Shahrukh is feeling itchy, feeling like it is time to move on, and Deepika can’t clearly express why she wants to stay, and stay with him, because she can’t break through her reserve to say it. Shahrukh isn’t trying to leave her, not at first, which is a big unspoken change. But when he retreats to childishness to run from how he feels, and she retreats to half-truths and shyness, they split again. Temporarily. This time, Shahrukh only gets a few minutes away before he is drawn back. Not because he needs her, but because he is worried she might need him. It’s the first moment of real growth for his character. And this time, when he comes back, she is waiting to greet him and admit her feelings instead of deny them. Only to have that moment delayed.
And then there is the 3rd time Deepika could leave Shahrukh, and doesn’t. He buys her a ticket and is ready to put her back on the train. But she instead asks to stay with him. Finally admits she wants to be with him.
We aren’t seeing some magical formula for falling in love, or a cupid’s arrow that shoots them through the heart and brings them together. Instead we are seeing two complex people brought together by circumstances who slowly come to appreciate and love each other. And along the way we get great songs, loads of humor, and some pretty silly fight scenes. But none of that would work without the characters and relationship at the center of it.
And that’s what makes the finale so good. And bad. I don’t like that it ends with Shahrukh giving a big speech while Dips just stands there, after the whole rest of the film where she was so active. But I do like that he takes control in this moment, goes back to her village and fights for her. She is someone who would never bring herself to speak for herself, or fight for herself, she would rather keep it inside and avoid conflict. Him declaring his love first, that is perfect and a sign that he really does understand her. The big speech though, a little too much, takes away a little too much power from the heroine. Although, on the other hand, he finally “wins” the fight when her misery makes her fiance and her father realize Shahrukh is right and stop fighting him. So she does kind of help.
The biggest lesson of Chennai Express isn’t to put comedy into your action films, or try for a southern crossover, or any of that. It is that for a silly “entertainer” film to cross the line into a record setting box office, there has to be something there more than just fluff. Yes, Deepika’s fake possession scene is funny, so are all the Antakshari moments, and all of Shahrukh’s cowardly mugging. And it’s a lot of work to come up with and perform all those moments, and to string them together in the film so that the audience is never bored. But what makes the film work is the characters.