Shah Rukh Khan's Eid release co-starring Deepika Padukone felt like a film that's better experienced with an audience instead of analysts. So I skipped the press screening and bought a ticket for a paid preview scheduled to start around the same time.
Conscious of the afore-mentioned monotony and cultural stereotypes characterising Bollywood's depiction of any community, I entered the hall with a modest objective -- 10 laughs. If Chennai Express can give me a minimum of these many chuckle-worthy occasions, I'm good.
Does it? Read on.
It all starts with a bleeding SRK about to be hammered by some threatening brutes when his own voiceover rather pleasantly transports us to the land of Bollywood's favourite narrative technique -- flashback.
Khan plays (S-U-R-P-R-I-S-E) Rahul. And he's (uh, belated happy birthday?) 40 and works as a (Gee, this is unique. And irrelevant), halwai.
What triggers this movie's title is the endearing actor/filmmaker Lekh Tandon, in a brief appearance as Rahul's almost centenarian grandfather and Sachin Tendulkar's greatest fan. After he passes away, Rahul is assigned the task of immersing part of his ashes in Rameswaram's waters.
Our man takes the first opportunity to resurrect his previously dead social life and hops on Chennai Express with Goa on his mind. A train about to leave the platform can only mean one thing --Dilwale Dulhania *Sigh* Le Jayenge. Miraculously enough, my scowl soon disappears into a smile and amplifies into a giggle responding to the unexpected spoof that follows. Mission laughter activated.
Never to waste time on nuances, Shetty immediately sets stage for a wacky camaraderie between Rahul and Meenamma (Padukone works an excessive accent that marries Mehmood, Mithun Chakraborty and Lola Kutty --Jahan se hum train kheenchte hai wahin se station shuru hoti hai) as they converse in a medley of Bollywood songs while her four burly captors look on part hostile, part amused.
Meenamma has standard issues-- rigid 'don-nna' father (an effective Sathyaraj) wants her to marry a boy of his choice but the focus is on SRK's breathless babbling and panicky reaction to her chaperone's sickle-flashing ways.
Her lies and his willingness to play along leads this couple on a 142 minutes long adventure against the lush heartland of South India. Shetty seems to have deliberately kept the action away from cities to capitalise on the regional flavour dominating his script. A good chunk of Chennai Express is spoken in Tamil without any subtitles but the Hindamil/Tamindi screenplay ensures nothing is lost in translation or lack of it.
Although there's no dearth of linguistic irreverence, the humour that actually works has nothing to do with word plays like kaafi/kaapi or Teriyama/Teri maa. The spunk here comes from attitude, the actors' compliance to be wholeheartedly loony, in enjoying not merely enacting, silly.
And so it's easy to lap up the spontaneity with which Rahul taunts Tangaballi (Nikitin Dheer resembling Mukesh Rishi in Gardish ) as 'Hanger pe latke kaale kapde' or Shetty lets his imagination riot as usual with the 'Life of Pi' gag or Deepika pays a creepy tribute to Manjulika's (think Bhool Bhulaiya) tribe.
Except that the scrumptious bits like the initially decent meal of a train journey soon makes way for stale leftover that pass off as morning breakfast. Once he runs out of jokes and jeeps to explode, Shetty dodders in classic stereotypes as well as his fondness for saturated colours, tossing in ugly visual effects.
Unsure of where to head next or offer any explanation for the delay in the hero-heroine's romantic union, he constructs scenes of contrived sentimentality, laughable drama and extended violence.
Ideally, the madcap tone of Chennai Express called for an equally quirky finish. Instead, the previously mousy Shah Rukh returns to his messiah roots bringing up the 66th year of Independence, parenting, women's rights in one breath followed by an endless session of crash, boom, bang simply to drive home his tag line for this Rahul: Never underestimate the power of a common man.
The unintentionally funny thing here is the adverse treatment meted at SRK's endorsements -- Videocon-- harbinger of bad news, Pepsi -- an entire crate is banged in his direction and Nokia -- flung outside the train, in the name of embedded marketing.
What stays put through and through is SRK's incredible charisma and gusto as he lightens the screen with his unabashed buffoonery, visibly enjoying his role as entertainer while lampooning it just the same.
His effervescence is met with dazzling reciprocation in Deepika Padukone's 'Meena Washing Powder Meena' who gets top billing in the opening credits. There's so much control in the stunner's performances since the last couple of films. And her dynamic comic timing even against faulty sensibilities is part of that evolution.
Finally, did I get my ten laughs? Well, I came *this* close. By the time the count had reached seven, Chennai Express decided to shift tracks from droll comedy to dreadful drama.