Vibrant Vinay, Mad Maud and I watched this on a long afternoon. And we seemed to be watching three wildly different films. Vinay was basking in a touching, if odd, romance between Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone: idiot confectioner and escapee gangster daughter. Maud was watching a borderline slapstick comedy of bright colours and gorgeous cinematography, with dialogue that landed its punches (well, for her). Old Jack here was watching a contradictory mess, not especially funny, filled with irritating twattishness presented as comedy and set like a guffaw at a funeral against earnest romance, unrealistic car chases and physical violence. And the growing awkwardness that the age-gap on-screen, whilst sweet for a middle-aged man’s fantasy and quite possibly the star’s vanity, was improbable to the point of embarrassing. Such is the mish-mash of things that make up one of the most popular Bollywood movies ever: Chennai Express.
It starts well, and rather adorably. SRK is Rahul, a bachelor and let’s assume a pent-up innocent in middle age. He’s been raised by his grandparents, and grandfather is now creaking towards his hundredth. I know! This had promise. A confectioner, he’s raised Rahul to be a confectioner (cue weird comedy cross-cut…and get used to hem), but drops dead before the day itself. Post pyre, Rahul agrees to take the ashes down to Rameswaram – then fibs when his friends suggest Goa. Cue confusion at the railway station, Rahul running to get the Chennai Express, then helping an escaping Meenamma onto the train (Deepika Padukone outpacing Khan throughout for timing, emotion and, I’m going there, distracting facial symmetry), and then her pursuers: thugs to a cliché.
And…okay, this is filled with lots of sped up shots, twitching and face-pulling where the comedy should be, nascent and unbelievable romance, sudden violence and – oh yeah, that reminds me. Old Jack here learnt something about these glorious channel-hopping-in-one-film films: they’re a thing and they’re known as masala films. Oh yeah. That works a lot of the time, but here is made irritating by the distance between the way the characters act (mostly SRK and comic timing that falls flat in a TV room) and the romance that is plainly meant from the first shot of them together.
Also, and here’s Old Jack’s ignorance on show, there’s a north/south India thing going on, which I eventually realised was a Hindi/Tamil thing: there are characters who talk one language, others who talk both, and much misunderstanding between the two. And SRK and Padukone row throughout…before things get real.
Which is welcome. They get taken back to her village. It turns out her Dad is the local Don, the gloriously still and threatening Durgeshwara Azhagusundaram played by the stary and frightening Sathyaraj. He does a lot with stillness, and the younger stars could learn something from that. Alas, the script reduces the encounter to SRK fumbling complicated names. Hmm.
Sathyarai is partnered by Nikitin Dheer as Tangabelli, young and powerful enough to be what you expect: the favoured putative son-in-law who Padukone is running from. Cue escape in fast cars and fast film, improbably shot and nonsense, but hey-ho. SRK and Padukone make it through many tiresome moments (that Maud adored, so, you know, open minds, folks) to get to a safe haven. A lovely village where they fall in mutually-misunderstood love. There’s a nightmare scene to get through, mind.
Okay, there’s lots more of the same, some about honouring the Grandfather, Meenamma helping Rahul be less of a dick, the two being taken for fiancées by the village and walking up three hundred steps to the temple. It is a lovely sequence, Rahul carrying Meenamma and sweating earnestly. Lovely, but agonising as it underpins the thing that made me nervous throughout: he’s in his forties, and that beautiful young girl in his arms deserves a beautiful young boy for her heart.
Chennai Express owns its title. It is fast, linear and carries you along whether you want it to or not. Vinay adored it; Maud adored it; old Jack here was properly entertained – particularly by the visuals and Padukone’s occasional subtlety – but there’s a lot of clunky, unfunny, faintly tiresome business that distracts from the sympathies between the central characters. Too many about-faces in the dialogue, from bad comedy to melodramatic self-pity, just makes things hard work.
Give it a go on Netflix.
The whole world enjoyed it more than me.