2013-08-19

Movie Review: Chennai Express

The premise of the movie Chennai Express is so good that the imagination starts to run as soon as you hear about it. What happens when Bollywood's hottest starlet, fleeing from a kidnapping commissioned by her mafioso father, winds up on the same wrong train as the Bollywood's biggest leading man, who is only there because he lied about spreading his grandfather's ashes in South India?

Chennai Express has the plot, the stars, the music, and the cinematography. It is a tour de force of Bollywood glam and folksy Indian comedy. In a way, this is a mixed blessing for what should have been the best movie of the year.

The movie casts what are perhaps the two brightest-burning stars in the Hindi film industry. Shah Rukh Khan, for his part, may very well be the most famous man in the world, as odd as that claim may sound to people in the mid-western United States. His merely appearing in a movie guarantees that it will gross enormous, multi-million-dollar revenues. Deepika Padukone, meanwhile, has risen to the top of Bollywood royalty from humble beginnings by making remarkably savvy role choices. One day, she's the haughty love-interest in a Hindi comedy, the next she's the sultry temptress in a Hindi love drama, and still the next she's the bright-and-bubbly girl next door. Casting these two stars promises great entertainment; both are such fine actors that they would really have to try to make a bad film. Indeed, Chennai Express delivers on the acting.

Perhaps the real star of the film, however, is South India itself. With the help of some lens-filtered technicolor and some wide-angled landscape shots, the movie's setting looks so stunning that I often wondered if I were looking at a real place. (Honestly, I have no idea - I've never been to India.) The area is a major departure from the northern, foreign, or urban locations typically featured prominently in Hindi films, and this has the effect of making things feel enchanting and exotic. Fusing these landscapes into the plot via some important religious scenes sweetens the deal even further.

Having said all this, I must now make it clear that Chennai Express is a film that can only be enjoyed by hardcore fans of Bollywood, or residents of India. The reason I say this is because the movie is plays like a "regional film," a movie tailored to a regional audience. Most of the bit players in the movie speak Tamil, rather than Hindi, which serves to underscore the idea that this is an Indian commoner's movie. Khan's catch-phrase throughout the film is, "Never underestimate the power of a common man!" and this is perfectly demonstrative of the film's intended purpose. While most Bollywood block-busters - especially the ones made these days - can easily appeal to an international audience, Chennai Express dispenses with the cosmopolitanism and sets its sites straight at the heart of ordinary South Indians.

The result, for those of you unfamiliar with the oeuvre, is a colorful send-up of hammy jokes, slapstick routines, and cartoonish violence. North Americans tend to find this sort of movie distasteful, but Bollywood churns out hundreds of movies like this per year for Indian audiences, and Chennai Express can only be appreciated from that angle.

To be sure, this is not just a regional film, but a rather good one. The jokes are witty, the cinematography is gorgeous, the music is excellent, and the acting is superb. Nonetheless, despite its already record-breaking ticket sales, Chennai Express is a movie best left to aficionados of the genre. I thoroughly enjoyed it; most North Americans, however, may find it a bit too idiosyncratic.