Friday, August 16, 2013

CHENNAI EXPRESS: Stardust


"There's a personal me, there's an actor me, and there's a star me," Shah Rukh Khan observed in Nasreen Munni Kabir's fascinating 2005 documentary, The Inner and Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan. In his new blockbuster Chennai Express, there's not much of that inner world on display, but SRK's "star me" seems to be the entire point of the movie.

Having suffered through Ra.One, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, and director Rohit Shetty's Bol Bachchan, I wondered if planning to see Chennai Express indicated the triumph of hope over experience. I am happy to report that there are no videogames or otherworldly supervillains as in Ra.One, no unnecessary bargains with God as in JTHJ, and just a couple of Shetty's favored slow-motion shots of vehicles flipping end over end (preferably while on fire). There is a lot of mugging and fourth-wall-breaking, along with some of the most color-amped footage of filmi-rural South India I have ever had the pleasure to ogle. If you’re in the mood to enjoy a tongue-in-cheek snapshot of SRK’s outer world--and if you're not unduly bothered by an ending that talks all feminist and then vigorously backpedals*--then you may have fun hopping on the Chennai Express.

Here we find SRK playing yet another character named Rahul. (“You must have heard that name before,” he says, in Chennai Express's nod to Om Shanti Om's nod to SRK's many Rahul roles.) Orphaned in childhood and raised by his grandparents to take over their sweet shop, this Rahul is forty years old and in dire need of romance, so his dear friends** concoct a plot to sneak him off to Goa for a holiday. But Dada Ji dies just before Rahul is to leave, so instead of vacationing, he's expected to deposit Dada Ji’s ashes in the waters of a southeastern Indian temple town. Dadi Maa sees Rahul off on the Chennai Express. He intends to hop off at the first stop and ditch the remains in Goa instead, but his plans immediately go awry.

Deepika ponders her escape
The train of the film's title is, naturally,  an excuse to kick off an SRK retrospective. Winking at the camera, Rahul grasps the hand of a beautiful girl (Deepika Padukone, but you knew that already) running in slow motion to catch the departing train while “Tujhe Dekha Ko” swells on the soundtrack. Then he performs the same rescue four more times as the tune continues to play, hauling on board a series of increasingly large lungi-wearing thugs, who are in pursuit of Deepika’s character, Meena.

These jokes amuse me, but such constant exposure to the outer world of SRK rather obliterates the inner world; Shah Rukh Khan doesn't seem terribly focused on acting the part of the sweet-shop guy who has never had a girlfriend when Rahul is boasting to a damsel in distress about his $700 mobile phone. Still, I enjoyed the familiar quotations from the hits that made SRK a multiplex superstar and household name.  (If I had grown up with these movies, I might be rolling my eyes at all this broad, self-referential humor, but I didn't grow up with them, so I enjoy the fact that the jokes are so very meta.)

The goofball let’s-put-on-a-show aspect of Shah Rukh’s comic performances often makes him quite likable. Maybe we believe we're getting a glimpse of the "personal me" when SRK seems to hold his own stardom at arm's length, like the middle-class boy from Delhi he used to be. But there’s no denying that the Khan humor can slide toward meanness. Not to take unnecessary umbrage--I find it very silly when a film has to, say, change its completely inoffensive name thanks to manufactured outrage--but the Tamil-speakers in Chennai Express are the butt of an awful lot of these-guys-talk-funny jokes. There is also a pointless and mortifying scene with a cross-eyed, speech-impaired dwarf that made me want to cover my eyes and ears.

Back to the plot involving Deepika and all those lumpen South Indian guys on the train: Meena turns out to be a Tamil godfather's runaway daughter, and the men are bringing her home to marry a local bigwig's son in whom she isn't interested. Meena pretends to be in love with Rahul for no convincing reason, which lands Rahul in hot water with the don and the outsized fiancé. The couple escape the village together thanks to Rahul grabbing a motorcycle and proving to have unexpectedly Dhoom-level biking skills. For the next hour, he and Meena bicker, pretend to be married, fall in love, and end up on the run again.

During this perfunctory romp, much of the scenery is surreally gorgeous. I'm quite sure there is no actual village anywhere on earth as clean, as idyllically situated, or with as many eye-popping colors as the one that exists in this film to be a backdrop for Meena's realization that she actually does love Rahul. Deepika and SRK, both in hot pink, swirl past baskets of searingly orange and yellow marigolds. Plastic containers in vendors' carts in the bazaar are enticingly candy-hued--yes, this village even has attractive Tupperware! The musical number "Kashmir Main, Tu Kanyakumari" features elephants with gleaming gold headgear and people dressed in vivid yellow tiger suits, Kathakali dancers, SRK in his DDLJ hat and jacket, and much, much more, posing before a backdrop that lacks only the Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ahh, who needs reality? An overload of egregious, flagrant, pulsating color makes me throw my hands in the air and say, "I concede. You're right. Total awesome WIN."



And oh, how I admired Deepika's clothes. Her sarees are a sumptuous feast of deep oranges and blues and vast swaths of gold embroidery, in which she is absolutely stunning. And she's also appealingly game, barreling through grimaces and funny voices in a sleepwalking (or, rather, a sleep SRK-pummeling) scene. "Single-screen humor," sniffs Rahul, but at the screening I saw it was hard to hear him over the guffaws from the audience.

After the interval we're in another film all of a sudden. Instead of poking nostalgic fun at those old Rahul/Raj characters who helped middle-class striver Shah Rukh Khan morph into Superstar SRK, the film actually turns into an old Rahul/Raj film. Rahul and Meena have escaped her father's grasp, and they're going their separate ways. But wait! They realize they're in love! Well, that means they can simply escape together to a sweet (-shop) future, right? Um, no. Instead, Rahul makes a detour and heads straight back to the village without telling Meena what he's up to. Why, you may ask, would he return to the place they've been on the run from for 90 minutes? Because he has to win her father's approval or he won't be able to live with himself, obviously. (The leather jacket in that Kashmir number isn't the only thing borrowed from DDLJ.) Rahul makes an affecting speech about the importance of women in independent India. Hooray! Then the hulking fiancé delivers the obligatory last-reel pummeling, by the end of which Shah Rukh is, as in days of yore, weeping and stammering and covered with blood and snot. And, as in days of yore, his perseverance naturally wins over Meena's father, who has been restraining Meena during the beatdown. He releases her hand so she can run to Rahul's side with daddy's blessing.

Sigh. I have seen this scene so many times before that I might have accepted it as retrograde and annoying yet par for the course had it not been for, you know, the big speech Rahul has just delivered (literally seconds before!) about respecting a woman's right to her own choices. What happened to autonomy? Why bring it up just to abandon the whole concept? If it's so essential that Meena be allowed to choose her own path, then why are the men fighting? How about you keep your hands to yourselves, boys, and let her decide?

A minute or so later, the film concludes with a tribute to Superstar Rajnikanth performed by, I kid you not, Honey Singh. I'm guessing that a bow to Rajnikanth was necessary to prevent people from fretting over the South Indian jokes. (And I'm pretty sure that SRK owes Rajnikanth one after putting him in Ra.One.) But did the tribute have to come from this guy?


Oh, hey! Look over here! Bright colors! Dancing! Self-effacing humor! And MONSTER SUPER HIT!

You know, if I squint just so and tilt my head at a certain angle, all I can see is stardust.





*I find that more and more, I have a hard time not being bothered by this. Can't we all just grow up and be OK with women being people too?

**Never to be seen again.

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