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Chennai Express
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by Jay Seaver

"Much too bogged down to be called an "Express"."
2 stars

I'm not sure quite how far we are into "Chennai Express" when the indicator of where the intermission would be comes up (the movie just kept going in Boston but likely paused in India), but the realization that the movie was roughly only half-way done was kind of deflating. It didn't seem to have gotten very far and I didn't want a whole lot more. There's a decent romantic comedy to be made out of this story, but I don't think it's almost two and a half hours long.

It starts with Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan), who lost his parents as a child and was raised by his grandparents, who loved him but have a way of shutting down any chance he has at romance. His grandfather dying just short of his hundredth birthday has Rahul taking the train south to scatter the old man's ashes, although his plans change a bit when he sees a pretty girl (Deepika Padukone) rushing to catch the train. He helps her on, but he also does the same for the four goons behind her, and it turns out that this Meena Lochini Azhaddgu Sundaram (Meenamma for short) is the daughter of a southern crime boss (Satyaraj), fleeing an arranged marriage. This, naturally, leads to her claiming Rahul is her fiancé, which does not go over so well with her massive, muscular betrothed Tangaballi (Nikitin Dheer).

Of course, it's not so straightforward as all that; there's a lot of flab on this movie, such as an opening act that takes the most indirect route to getting Rahul on the train with "Meenamma" possible, and the one quality gag that comes out of it isn't close to being worth how unpleasant it makes Rahul. There is a great deal of running around in circles, and while the various writers set up some potentially fun farcical situations, it's often with characters who just seem to be there to fill out scenes and will not make any impact on the movie otherwise. A lot of gags are set up by Rahul ignoring what Meenamma just said for no good reason at all.

Some jokes also seem to be lost in translation, like Rahul's repeated imperative to never underestimate the power of a common man, or why his family sweet-shop business seems particularly funny to Meenamma; maybe a Hindu audience catches a reference. That phrase can also be quite literal, as situations often arise or get worse from various characters not being able to understand Hindi, English, or Tamil, which can be hard to distinguish for westerners following the dialog via subtitles (to be fair, the filmmakers do a good job of making this clear quickly). Like many Bollywood movies, it's got songs, but becomes a weird meta-musical at times as Rahul and Meenamma break into song so that the kidnappers will think they're doing a love-at-first-sight number while they're really discussing something else.

Things get better after the intermission, as the balance shifts somewhat from comedy to romance and we get a little more indication that these two people actually like each other as opposed to just having entangled escape plans and soften a bit. It's weird, really: The writers seem to make a point of establishing similar motivations for the pair - both have father-figures trying to use them to further their own ambitions at the expense of any romance - but the pair appear to be starting from scratch halfway through. They do make up for lost time, beating back a lot of the cynicism that the audience may have about the pairing. The big fight between Rahul and Tangaballi at the end is mostly earned (although it is odd that Meenamma is implicitly made the prize after a couple hours of being the one most actively trying to live life on her own).

The chemistry between Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan certainly improves during the second half, as they start to act with each other rather than at each other. Padukone's got the better arc to play with, as the kind of haughty Meenamma softens somewhat by the end, showing some real affection as opposed to annoyance that Rahul doesn't realize she's the brains of the operation. Khan gets to freak out and act dumb a lot, and while he does manage to marshal his charisma by the end, there's a lot of time spent wondering whether Rahul's more selfish or clueless. Nikitin Dheer stands out a bit as an amusingly blunt object of a foe, but much of the rest of the cast is in and out, with Satyaraj making relatively little impression as Meenamma's father.

Another thing that doesn't hurt the second half of the film is that it's downright beautiful to look at. The village where Meenamma and Rahul hole up is extremely picturesque, for one, and there are plenty of other moments when the movie screen just explodes with color, especially during a couple of musical numbers that will cause a bit of head-scratching but just as much eye-popping.

Still, the high-quality material is badly diluted here. I'll admit that complaining that a Bollywood movie is long is arguably having a problem with the sky being blue, but most of the time they're packed full of a bit of everything. This one, unfortunately, is a fairly simple comedy with about an hour of padding.

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originally posted: 08/26/13 13:57:21
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User Comments

8/27/13 Yusuf Nasrullah Really quite awful! What a pity that Shahrukh Khan has been reduced to the morass! 2 stars
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  08-Aug-2013 (NR)



Directed by
  Rohit Shetty

Written by
  Yunus Sajawal
  Robin Bhatt

  Deepika Padukone
  Shah Rukh Khan
  Nikitin Dheer

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