Along with Bachchan, Khan is arguably the most famous Indian actor outside of India. For a stardom that has succeeded wildly and almost-entirely on packaging Khan as My-Name-is-Rahul, a lean-cut, romantic leading man with near universal name recognition in North India, Chennai Express should offer a turn-the-page opportunity for an aging star (Khan is forty seven) to pay a tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted homage to his own highly lucrative movie career before transitioning into more mature scripts and age-commensurate outlooks. Instead, Chennai Express comes across as unintelligible (in more ways than one), a not-so-funny comedy; a misfired high speed rail adventure that amounts to flashing lights and raised signals. Alas, there is no train coming.
K. Subhash’s wafer-thin story starts out with a tantalizing premise. Rahul (Khan), who runs his family confectionary store in Mumbai while preoccupied with being a 40-year old virgin, aspires to a more meaningful livelihood—though we never divine exactly what those aspirations are. Bound by a promise Rahul makes to his grandmother (veteran Kaushal, still vital at eighty-six) to scatter his late grandfather’s ashes at Rameshwaram, on the southern tip of India, Rahul sets out on a journey. A last-minute train change finds Rahul on Chennai Express, definitely the wrong train for where he needs to go. For an added distraction, Rahul also learns that he has unknowingly rescued Meena Amma (Padukone), a fair damsel escaping the trap of a forced marriage to the village thug (Dheer) by her controlling father (Satyaraj).
Cinematographer Narendra Rahurikar previously aided Shetty on Singham (2011) and in the Golmaal franchise. Rahurikar’s work here could be his best to date. From the brilliant hues of South Indian folk dancers to giving Goa-dressed-as-Chennai a freshly-painted working platform, the set pieces are visually evenly fleshed-out. There is also Vishal-Shekhar’s catchy score that lands on pop chart territory more than once.
So how does Chennai get off-track so quickly and so easily? For one, the paper-thin plot only works for the first 20 minutes. The first one or two nods to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge should have been sufficient bat-to-cranium reminders of Khan’s box office creds. Hitting the audience with near continuous references to previous Khan roles and films, however, have the reverse effect. The net results of hearing repeated name-dropping dialog soon numbs the senses to any sense of originality at work. Sad, really.
Then there is the heavy stereotyping of “South Indians” attempting to speak their non-native Hindi. As if the cringe-worthy accents are not enough, even Padukone tries a peculiar nasal inflection that is annoying at best. Certain inter-linguistic play on words can be funny if used sparingly and with good delivery. Most of the humor is, however, piggy-backed on Khan’s Hindi-speaking Rahul having to function in a space where just about everyone speaks Tamil (and then annoyingly having every line spoken in Tamil translated into Hindi by another character, sub-titles be damned). Since Shahrukh Khan lacks comic timing of the kind Salman Khan used so well in Dabbang, most of the humor here simply flatlines.
At the center of the story is Khan, seemingly fixated on maintaining a screen persona that passingly suited him two decades ago under the tutelage of the late Yash Chopra. Khan’s “Rahul” (that was his screen name in at least a half-dozen movies) is sheer pseudo-iconography, which originally sold Rahul as an upper-crust princeling that never, ever, had to worry about money. Unbeknownst to the 99%-percent, these days Rahul is suddenly obsessed with tribulations of the “common man”—another annoying phrase Rahul takes up with ubiquity.
Rohit Shetty is foremost an action choreographer of the trains-and-flying-automobiles school, and a Shahrukh Khan entry is incongruous with Shetty’s resume. The best reason to see Chennai is Padukone. Strikingly beautiful and energetic, Padukone’s Meena has expressive eyes that channel a storm of emotions that Khan’s Rahul—in another affront to him being Mr. Sensitive—fails to pick up on repeatedly. Even though Khan gave Padukone top billing, which is perhaps his most artistic, daring and original move in the making of this movie, Padukone is not the cause for worry here.