Sunday, August 11, 2013

Chennai Express

the short version
I don't hate it, but I absolutely would not have seen it in the first place if it weren't for Shahrukh. And it is better—more interesting, less painful, more likely to be rewatched (though I'm in no hurry and would not be sad if I never saw it again)—than Jab Tak Hai Jaan by a long shot.

the long version
The biggest punch in Chennai Express lands immediately as the film opens. The subsequent runtime of the film has kicked the details out of my head, but the basic gist of it is Shahrukh, at what is clearly the onset of a huge brawl, saying something like "My name is Rahul, I'm 40 years old, and I'm about to do something I've never done before" (or maybe it's "I find myself in a place I've never been," but you get the idea) and holding a shovel up by his shoulders like it's a baseball bat, business end ready to come crashing down.* That seems to be in essence what the purpose of the film really is: put King Khan in a different 100-crore scenario than he's ever been in before and show he can do this style of blockbuster (or a blockbuster with a certain set of formulaic trappings) in his own way but just as successfully as Salman or Ajay Devgn or Akshay Kumar (Aamir having left his bloody-toothed smashy-smash in Ghajini, it would appear).

This particular iteration seems (relatively) thoughtfully made for him: lots of opportunities for the quivering ~ eyebrows and tears to kick into action, a big romantic gesture, actual reflection on his priorities and his culture, some good (if not full-throttle) dancing and heroine-authored dream moments that justify the arm-fling, and cleverly running away more often than fighting. The film repeatedly gives spoken and visual reminders of how Shahrukh Khan, at least at first glance, does not have the physical presence of even a stylized southie masala hero and there's little indication in the actor's body or in the character that he will have any kind of force to him whatsoever (he is costumed in enough shirts that you don't really see his arms and torso until later in the film) (though I think the revealing of SRK's muscles on screen has generally been for fantasy and beauty more than force anyway). Of course, only the fictional villains don't know that he will eventually defeat them, but the story makes good use of him being stronger in body and character than they expected him to be.

And speaking of a hero being smaller-scale than we might expect in a film from this director or of this approximate type: can we think of another Hindi hero who, in this setting, would bill himself after the heroine (especially when their roles are of basically equal until the finale brawl) and then essentially create an offering in song to one of the biggest superstars in the country when said superstar doesn't appear even in a cameo in the film? I'm trying to imagine Salman doing a song about the greatness of Rajnikanth and it just doesn't work in my head. And no one would care if Ajay did it. I don't know what exactly it means, or might mean in how we think of him later in his career, that SRK has done a "Hurrah for Rajnikanth!" song, but no matter how silly or fluffy the song, I think it says something about his own version of superstardom, one that seems to acknowledge some...humility? humor? self-awareness? sense of the order of things? Aside: is there a list somewhere of songs by one hero in tribute to another? It'd be a fascinating read/watch. Off the top of my head, I can only think of "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte" from Rab Ne Bana Jodi, and that was much more about eras of films and iconic pairings than about one particular actor (and if anything may have been a way to equate SRK with, or insert him into, that list of icons).

Rahul's refrain of "Don't underestimate the power of the common man," which the writers worked into the dialogue at least five times more than was strictly necessary to establish it as a motto, is exactly what they're doing within the story and at the more meta level, showing that this famously once-outsider now-mega megastar can do what many of his primary contemporaries are doing despite his biggest hits and most famous roles being in other types of movies. I think it will take more than one film to establish SRK as a north-goes-south sort of hero, but he's showing he can do a tailored version of it if he wants to—and if audiences want him to, of course, which, based on what I'm reading about the box office for Chennai Express, we do. The film seems well aware that it's doing something different with its star, and maybe that's the reason for the onslaught of references to Shahrukh's previous films.

Aside from maintaining my standing as a student of Shahrukh Studies, I had no reason to watch Chennai Express.  It's really not my kind of movie—give me just plain Shetty over his son any day—and I only had any interest in it when I first heard about it because of its star. Once reviews started coming in, my curiosity about Deepika was piqued. I thought she was very good in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani and was pleased to hear she had turned in another strong performance. Now that I've seen it, I'm really puzzled by her rave reviews. She is perfectly fine but doesn't do much in particular with her role. Nor does she have much interesting to work with (as is so often the case) except to act relatively sensibly (as is so rare for heroines) in a world full of idiotic men (back to "so often"), though I am grateful to the writers for giving her a chance to have fun with Tamil film witch characterization. With the exception of some lovely waterfalls, the brightness and order of the pastoral get-away village, and some moments of songs, the look of the film is...fine? It's not anything I wish I had screencaps of for visual inspiration or aesthetic bliss, let's put it that way. The brief comic relief moment with the little person is surely going to stand out as a WTF WAS THAT moment of 2013, with filmmakers doing everything in their power to strip his humanity short of giving him wings and painting him green.

The first ten minutes of biographical and family sketch prelude are pointless and charmless and feature Shahrukh being given dialogues that suit someone half his character's age, resulting in a very bumpy start. I'd like to see a rewrite that followed "tell, don't show" with some of that, maybe having Rahul stand on the train station platform with his backpack and urn while doing a voice-over about how he was supposed to go to Goa with friends but his grandma asked him to take his dear grandfather's ashes to Rameshwaram, so he thought he'd try to fool her. I'm also not a fan of his squirrely shenanigans on the train. We all know Shahrukh can stammer and squirm to great effect, but he doesn't hit the right notes this time, maybe because we know he is, and he clealry looks, just too damn old to be so juvenile. Honestly, I'm not sure what the right notes would have been, but cutting the length of this bit, or dialing back from 11 to something around 7, would surely help.**

I read at least half a dozen reviews and many more tweets about Chennai Express before I saw it, so maybe my attempts to manage my expectations accordingly were just really effective. As awkward and pointless as parts of it are, I truly do not understand the hatred and disappointment this film has inspired. Once the train stopped at Meena's village (and was never seen again), I thought the movie worked perfectly well at what I understood it to be trying to do. The only aspect of "what the film is trying to do" that I personally care much about is the persona and iterations of Shahrukh the star, so maybe I inadvertently ignored some big problems?

To close, I want to discuss whether the film actually succeeds in making any coherent statements about women after the somewhat sassy heroine and grandstanding have finished. One friend told me she found the ending "bathshit regressive." My reaction is more an uneasy balance of several moments from across the film. Meena is still the object, rather than a real participant, in the marriage customs that she and Rahul enact to convince people they're a real couple and, in the end, restrained by her father, forced to watch a horribly violent fight involving the man she loves, and then literally handed over to him by her father (probably the worst possible way to evoke DDLJ). And I desperately wish there had been another female character with a name other than dadima. But on the other hand, in much of the story Meena has a lot of agency and makes her own decisions and she gently wields strength as the translator for Rahul (information is power!). I love the very appropriate and surprisingly direct moment in the otherwise stultifying speech Rahul makes near the end about how India's independence is incomplete and hollow when women are still bound and treated like property. What do you think? [Update to post (August 12, 2013): there are lots of great ideas about this in the comments. Do read them.]

Bonus: very fine subtitle fail when, in discussing the immersing of grandpa's ashes in the ocean, "fulfilled rituals" appeared as "fun-filled rituals."

* For those who haven't seen the film, it then flashes back from that point to a brief sketch of Rahul's upbringing and family for about ten completely wasted minutes, then puts him on the titular train and the real story begins, only getting back to this moment in the final ten or so minutes.
** Holy product placement. That was so incredibly brash I almost have to admire them for having the cheek to try it so bold-faced-ly. I'm not sure how successful it is, given that the product is literally tossed out the window early in the film and never referred to again. Even if viewers remember the phone and its features, I think we could just as easily read that sequence as tongue-in-cheek comment by the filmmakers and cast about the disposable nature of corporate intrusion into their work.

18 comments:

Ellie said...

"Batshit regressive" friend here! I found it particularly a regressive ending precisely because during the whole film she'd had agency, and when it came to the crunch she was literally, physically being held apart from the action and from any agency; at least (SPOILER) he actually ASKED her to marry him, instead of assuming that was next, so that was points in favor. But that speech: it was a man standing up for women, and that was good, but meanwhile it was suggesting that women are, when it comes to it, utterly powerless and only when men stand up for them can they gain anything? When the MEN are convinced that women should be turned over to other men (I mean, that's what the movie did), then we're good to go-- but until other men are convinced, women are literally hostage. I don't know. Still think it had a batshit regressive ending.

Ellie said...

Here again though. Super-points for the Yay-Rajni song. Had not considered it, because it seemed oddly totally in character for SRK.

Deepa Deosthalee said...

Beth, your thoughts on CE are brimming with SRK love... Wish i'd had this crutch to sit through the film. though your first observation is completely in line with mine. it's a better bet than JTHJ.

icyHighs said...

I'll probably watch it for the same reason: SRK. film songs celebrating other heroes would've been a great riff, though i can't think of any. unless you'd like a south indian option (Malayalam)- the two reigning superstars for oh 25 years now, mohanlal (hero of the movie) and mammootty (in a cameo as himself) in a chance drunken meeting on a train. cue token drunk-cute peck on cheek: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8O2NbcZi1Z8

Raja Swaminathan said...

Haven't seen the movie, so my comment should be seen in this context.

Also, am neutral on SRK. Have always been. Comments to be seen in this context too. :-)

1) I've read a lot of reviews too - and find many of them actually urging people to watch this, saying things like "there isn't much of a plot, the plot has plotholes, the movie's loud, the dialogues hackneyed, the constant references to DDLJ annoying, there's a lot of SRK hamming - but hey, keep all this aside and go watch the movie for fun".

I don't get that. Wasn't content usually the first thing that drove a film? Or is that an old-fashioned mindset now?

The question I ask is : If this had been a lesser star than SRK (say Sunil Shetty or Tushar Kapoor), would the reviews have been quite as charitable?

2) About whether another actor would have paid a tribute to Rajni, sure. Why not? Rajni is seen as a Southie superstar, so any actor (incl Salman) would have had no issue whatsoever paying him a tribute. Also, it makes good business sense in a movie of this sort. So nothing special about it IMO.

3) About SRK allowing the heroine's name to precede his in the credits, nice touch. Credit to him. Again, it makes good business sense - these things do make a difference in building a brand.

And that's what SRK is all about. A brand. Every small thing that he can do to build his brand, he will. Nothing wrong with that.

As long as we recognise it for what it is, shorn of its pretensions.

Again, I don't think another actor would've had a problem doing the same.

4) I might be sounding a tad harsh here on SRK. I don't mean to be. I continue to be neutral on him (as I am on almost all current-day actors actually).

I'm just maybe a bit more of a "content" guy. I'll see any movie if has great content. I don't need a star to drive me to watch it. :-)
But that's just me. :-) To each his own, of course. :-)

Glad to read this review, Beth. At least it gives me a different POV than many I've read so far.

dustdevil liz said...

Hmm, much to ponder. I was getting excited to see this, if only because Deepika was getting praised (what can I say, I liked her a lot in Om Shanti Om.)

I wonder if there are more songs in praise of other heroes in South movies in general. Prabhas has a song praising Rajinikanth in the movie Bujiguddu http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prXgmt2MgMY, but it' also part of the character that he's spent time in Tamil Nadu and is a huge Rajni fan.

Tobi said...

I found the ending really horrible and medium-level batshit regressive.

Really horrible because of that awful fight scene, altho it does make me laugh how the baddies always attack the hero one at a time, instead of just piling on and demolishing him in one go. It's film-fight etiquette!

Regressive: well, I'm not entirely confident I know what regressive means, but I do know that I was majorly pissed off that Rahul pulled that old DDLJ trick of ignoring the utterly sensible idea to just run away. Really, if I was a filmi heroine (I wish!) and had decided for myself, as an adult, that I'd rather start a new life elsewhere than deal with my family problems (putting it mildly), then I'd be fairly boiling mad to be taken directly to confront said family by someone I thought I could trust.

Instead of just sensibly fleeing, there's the macho posturing of confronting the father and fiancé and nearly getting beaten to death before daddyo finally releases his squirming daughter's wrist.

The subtext I get is: a woman is an autonomous being with the right to choose her own fate, so that SRK can come along and prove that her choices are wrong. Somehow, getting badly beaten and having a lot of blood streaming down his face, before turning around n whipping some serious thug butt, is an important part of the lesson. Life is tough when you're the hero.

Now that I've had a good rant, may I just add that I actually thoroughly enjoyed watching CE and was thrilled to see SRK on the big screen for the first time. Yes he was hammy-ham-chops but I love those chops!

Tobi said...

I just wanted to clarify that my beef with Chennai Express is with the ending. Lots of the other bits I really enjoyed!

Dee B. said...

SRK's billing after the heroine is part of a product placement too - it was part of an ad campaign for Tata Tea where SRK declared that he would always give his heroines top billing (Tata Tea has done other "social awareness" kind of campaigns in the past). The campaign ran a little after the Delhi rapes when public activism was very high, so in a sense, this is as calculated a move for SRK as any other.

jennyketcham said...

I liked the cinematography and the dance numbers best...loved those tea field shots! Lush! And there were a few cute moments (loved Deepika's train-running entrance), but I agree, I'm not going to be in any rush seeing it a second time.

The last dance number/tribute was fun except for his junior-sized wardrobe (bleh). I didn't realize it was almost an in-house product placement number until I left the auditorium and found Vijay's film Talaivaa playing in the auditorium directly opposite. I assumed, incorrectly, that it was a Rajnikanth film and laughed with my friends that Rajni had said, "you can shoot in my hood if you advertise my next film."

Unknown said...

I, too, found the ending full of mixed messages. "Give your daughters agency, but let me have her only after I've successfully fought for her." WTF? It would have made much more sense if Rahul had foregone the "we're modern now" speech, fought the big scary dude for his own reasons [self-respect, etc.], won, and then said "By the way, Dad, I shouldn't have had to do this to win your daughter if I was who she wanted all along." I also feel that they did not sufficiently set up Rahul as an arrested-adolescent early in the film, which would have made the 2nd half make WAY more sense narratively (stepping up to be the next generation of manliness once Grandpa has died).

Overall I gave it a meh-plus. Like you, I did not hate it and found plenty to like, but the ending and the EXCRUCIATINGLY LONG AND BLOODY fight scene ruined all my goodwill for this film.

Beth Watkins said...

Ellie - That is very true, and it's done, I think, in order to make the hero seem more badass by having no one helping him in the fight. Sadly I think there's real truth to the idea that women aren't going to gain much until men start arguing for those rights and opportunities too, so to me that made a sad sort of sense.

And I think the Rajni song is quite in character for SRK, but I'm not sure why I think that.

Deepa - Hahaha yes, they are indeed, and I don't think I'd encourage anyone who doesn't like SRK to see this.

icyHighs - Nice find with the Mamoootty and Mohanlal bit!

Raja - I'm glad to have your thoughts! I'm with you on "but don't think about it" being offered as reason or excuse for any film, mostly because it creates a false dichotomy between entertainment and thinking.

I think lesser stars would have brought FAR less interest in this film. I was wondering about that as I watched, and I decided that removing a superstar from most popular films would alter the film so much that trying to compare a version without that major force is not very useful. I'm sure there are some counter examples out there, but for the most part, star power, persona, charisma, etc is so essential in certain projects.

The point I'm wondering about re: Rajni song is that other HIndi stars HAVE done southie-ish films and not done similar tributes - so what's different about this case (including the person doing it)? Salman has never done a "we <3 Mahesh Babu" song and I can't imagine he ever would (and not just for differences in opinion about shirt-wearing, either).

Agree that much of this, including the heroine billing, is about brand. But again, of all the things he can do for his brand, why did he choose this one? And why haven't other guys chosen it too for their brands?

Maybe ten years from now he'll do a really candid interview about it and I can know for sure. :)

Liz - I truly don't get the Deepika praise. She's absolutely fine but to me it wasn't nearly as good a job as YJHD.

Tobi - I was expecting a fight scene basically exactly like that and felt like this particular style of film would have felt really odd without it. It is very curious that they didn't just run away; I think having them turn back 1) showed emotional growth of the hero and 2) of course gave the hero a chance to be heroic in the form of getting beaten up. I suppose we could stretch it to say that turning back and dealing with the problem means Meena can keep her relationship with her father, which does seem to be important to her.

And dear Helen above, why would you wish you were a filmi heroine? Yikes.

Glad you enjoyed your first big-screen SRK! It's a treat.

Dee B - Oh I know, but I think it's interesting that HE is doing it and not any of the other male superstars (that I know of).

jenny - I wonder if there was something off with the version or screen in my cinema because I've heard lots of people raving about how good this film looked but I found it standard. Bright, but not in any kind of noteworthy way?

The Talaivaa film thing is very funny - same situation in my cinema too.

Unknown - It truly is a mess at the end. I like your suggestion for an ending a lot better.

Tobi said...

Yes I realised several hours later that Rahul not running away was an important part of his own character arc and therefore kind of important/a major part of the movie's message (not so quick in the brains dept, me!).

Oh, and my commitment to being a filmi heroine pretty much extends no further than dancing in a chiffon sari while a hunky hero makes lovey-dovey eyes at me :)

Beth Watkins said...

Tobi - I think they could have done the "hero grows up" thing in a way that is more coherent and interesting, unfortunately.

re: heroine: phew! :)

Tobi said...

Sorry to bug u again but I was wondering if you or any of your learned readers could help me out with something: does the scene with the little person echo a Tamil cinema trope, or was it just straight out of bizarro-land?

And the subtitles irked me a little: fun-filled instead of fulfilled as you mentioned, plus two tiny snippets of SRK dialogue were unsubtitled. I'm used to botched subtitles, but It bothered me here because the film was promoted as this enormous international juggernaut. Oh, and the songs weren't subtitled either. It's a quibble, but then I guess I'm a quibbler!

Beth Watkins said...

Tobi - I have learned via twitter that yes, the little person is a common "comic" element in Tamil films lately. I have only seen a handful of Tamil films and most of them older, so I can't speak to that myself.

Subtitles: songs in the cinema, and even on some DVDs, depending on who released it, are very rarely subtitled, I've found. Big international releases don't seem to put any more effort into their subtitles than the average DVD maker, in my experience. I recommend working on as zen-like an approach to subtitles as you can muster. :)

Sharon said...

I haven't seen this movie and don't plan to, but I assume that the Rajni tribute song is a blatant attempt to get Rajni fans in TN and elsewhere to see a movie they otherwise might not - same principle as the Rajni cameo in Ra One.

Beth Watkins said...

But why pay to see something in the cinema that's been on youtube for a few weeks? I guess that might work for people who are on the fence, like the idea of a Rajni tribute on the big screen is enough to tip their decision, but if you have no interest in the movie, I'm not sure how this would grab you enough to get you to the cinema, especially since he's not actually in it.