Monday 12 August 2013

Off the rails: "Chennai Express"

Liable to become the summer's big Bollywood blockbuster - in part for uniting the two biggest stars of a system in which stars still matter - Chennai Express is the one about the guy, the girl, and the train they first cross paths (and lock eyes) on; that title may be channelling Shanghai Express, though actually the train turns out to be the least significant part of the whole enterprise. The set-up has Shah Rukh Khan's unmarried confectioner Rahul - a sweet man who's somehow reached the age of 40 without encountering much adventure, or attention from the opposite sex - heading out for what he hopes will be a stress-free trip to Goa. The movie gods have other ideas, however, and as the train pulls out of the station, Rahul unwittingly helps aboard both dashing gangster's daughter Meena (Deepika Padukone) and the goons assigned to strongarm her back home in time for her marriage to a local tough.

The moment everyone disembarks at Meena's village to settle the matter, we know roughly where the film is heading, although both the route and the tone prove unpredictable, to say the least. Chennai Express can veer from a sharp comic idea (linking the fate of Rahul's 99-year-old grandpa with cricketer Sachin Tendulkar's bid to reach 100 international centuries) to the cartoon-broad (Khan pulling Jerry Lewis faces to the accompaniment of a CBeebies soundtrack) via rat-a-tat exchanges that have their origins in screwball ("I'm Inspector Shamsher from Punjab" "Oh, which part?" "The whole body"). As tested in an early back-and-forth where they sing in Hindi plans for an escape that their Tamil captors won't understand - making a duet of the phrase "go to the toilet" - Khan and Padukone do at least have discernible chemistry, which helps the film's cause more than Messrs. Cruise and Diaz helped Knight & Day, or the Depp-Jolie pairing did The Tourist, although if you couldn't strike up chemistry with the generally exquisite Padukone, I'd be worried for you. 

It should be noted that where the female lead gets to play smart, fierce and funny, Khan (who has played subtle elsewhere) is indulged even for an actor incarnating a cosseted man-boy, reducing his apparently heartfelt last-reel cri de coeur on behalf of oppressed village girls everywhere to a hammy hash it would be easy not to take seriously. Still, after a run of larger-than-life hero roles, it's nevertheless diverting to see the actor back in a comedy that extracts plentiful use (and fun) from his tiny frame, in a way that Cruise, for instance, simply would never allow: the film gets laughs from setting Rahul to tickling the bellies of the heavies whose nipples he barely comes up to, or watching him drive round in a dinky orange jeep apparently ordered from the pages of the Playmobil catalogue. 

Around him, the director Rohit Shetty has a knack for slick transitions, getting us into and out of each sequence - whether musical, random (there's a Life of Pi moment) or less-than-PC (Rahul's encounter with an eye-rolling dwarf in the woods) - in considered, often inventive ways, making it easier for us to go along for the ride; as on the best kind of journey, what we're looking at gets more colourful with each passing scene, such that by the finale - which is as old-school as modern Bollywood gets, complete with thundercrack punches, a screaming heroine on the sidelines, and an unlikely yet rousing resurrection - the screen has become so caked in blood and dust it resembles the aftermath of a Holi festival celebration. How we get there from the first act's pratfalls and facepulling remains anybody's guess. Rail replacement bus, maybe?

Chennai Express is in cinemas nationwide.

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