Some films are hard to make sense of. Others are just nonsense. Chennai Express, directed by Rohit Shetty, ticks both boxes. More than a quarter of the film is in Tamil, and hence incomprehensible if you’re unfamiliar with the language. The rest is a stew of puerile humor, lazy stereotypes, and way-over-the-top acting from a star who appears to be trying too hard.
Shah Rukh Khan, who’s provided enough evidence to convince us that he can do comedy effortlessly (remember Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, DDLJ, and Main Hoon Na?), spends a chunk of this film referencing his earlier hits, and bouncing off the walls like the Energizer bunny. Could he possibly be overworking himself to compensate for the film’s tired writing? Because it’s clear from Chennai Express that Shetty has launched an elaborate expedition with a plot so thin, it could give a paper dosa a run for its money.
That plot involves SRK’s character, Rahul (yes, again!) boarding the Chennai Express, intending to sneak off to Goa to vacation with his buddies, although he’s tasked with immersing his grandpa’s ashes in Rameswaram. But when he encounters Meena (Deepika Padukone), who’s on the run from her father (Sathyaraj), a don in a Tamil Nadu village, Rahul is tricked into going back with her and pretending to be her fiance. This comes with its own set of complications – Meena is betrothed to the hulking, glowering Thambabali (Niketan Dheer), which is why she made a mad dash from her village in the first place. As Rahul and Meena scramble all over South India to escape daddy’s goons, we struggle to catch up.
Chennai Express attempts to marry the puppy-dog sentimentality of a typical Shah Rukh Khan romance with the broad humor and the crash-bang-boom thrills of a Rohit Shetty action comedy. But the film does little justice to either genre. A big reason for that is the lethargic pacing. Shetty has pulled off cornier stories in the past, delivering gags and stunts at breakneck speed. This film, however, is a tough slog because the jokes aren’t funny, and the set pieces entirely rehashed. In place of a real performance, Shan Rukh resorts to the sort of facial gymnastics that could shame an Olympian. To endure this indulgence, you have to be a die-hard fan.
Deepika Padukone, meanwhile, stays firmly in character throughout. Her heavily accented Meena delivers some genuine laughs, particularly during one terrific scene in which she sleep-talks as if she were possessed. Six years after debuting opposite Shah Rukh in Om Shanti Om, she displays comic chops to rival his.
The pair doesn’t get much scope to ignite romantic chemistry, save for one scene after interval, when Shah Rukh carries Deepika in his arms, and proceeds to climb up 300 steps to a temple on the top of a hill. His face bathed in sweat, his eyes alive with intensity, Shah Rukh takes each step with unflappable commitment, and Deepika can’t take her eyes off him.
Alas, moments like these are in short supply here. What you get are insipid songs, a long sermon on women empowerment, more cars being flipped like pancakes and so many references to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge that you wish you were sitting in Maratha Mandir watching that film instead.
I’m going with a generous two out of five for Chennai Express. How to put this politely? It’s a big, fat bore. A bloated vanity project for an actor capable of so much more.