Chennai Express is what Bollywood likes to call an entertainer. I have to admit that many people in the cinema hall did seem to have been vastly entertained. But I came out feeling like I’d been pulverised by one of Rohit Shetty’s cars. And like anyone going through a life-altering crisis, I was filled with questions. I asked myself: Why, why, why?

Why cannot Bollywood deal with South India in anything beyond a grotesque stereotype? Why does a Badshah have to descend to this level of puerility and buffoonery? Why does Rohit Shetty, who has enough hits under his belt to make a film on his own terms, not attempt to raise the bar? It would be easy to believe the answer to all three questions is: a hundred, perhaps two hundred crore. But that would be simplistic because the questions go beyond individuals.

As one who grew up in what was then Madras, I find a familiar anger creeping up on me when I see caricatures like those in Chennai Express. Especially in this case, because the film has predicated its storyline on cultural differences. How much research could it have taken for Rohit Shetty to get his fundamental premise right? Not much, of course, but why bother when the Padosan formula is ready and tested at the box-office? Bollywood feeds on its own stereotypes with a breathtaking lack of accuracy and sensitivity.

All countries have their cultural stereotyping. Scots and Irishmen are stock figures in British comedy; Jews and blacks are often lampooned in Hollywood. But in Chennai Express, as with much of Bollywood, the eye is not that of an Indian, it is that of the North Indian. And that’s the problem.

Sure, Bollywood has been guilty of cultural stereotyping even when it comes to North India — say, with Sardars. Ah, but that’s affectionate, not ugly — the burly, large-hearted, lassi-swilling, bhangra-happy Paaji is a lovable guy. To be fair, let me add that in Tamil films, the villains are often North Indians, the seth… another stereotype. You could argue that Deepika’s character, named Meenalochani Azhagusundaram (why are we not surprised by the double barrels?), is dainty, fair and elegant, but see, she’s the aberration, the rebel, not the norm.

Every time you see a glimmer of hope in films like Raanjhanaa, Shanghai or Aiyya, bang comes along a Chennai Express. Sachin Kundalkar, who defied the norm in Aiyya with his quiet, mysterious South Indian protagonist, puts it insightfully: “Bollywood does not appreciate subtle regional textures. It confines itself to being Hindi cinema; it is too timid to attempt to be national cinema.”

Timid is an adjective you’d use to describe Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Chennai Express but not SRK the actor in what has to be the hammiest performance by a top-rung actor in a long, long time. It’s downright embarrassing — is this what the leading superstar of the world’s largest film industry does to keep his position?

What a chance he had to spoof the very concept of the Hindi film hero… and with a name like Rahul to boot. He did have quite a few moments but they were drowned in all the babbling, spluttering and grimacing.

It’s inexplicable that one of our most intelligent actors, with a sophisticated, often self-deprecatory sense of humour, who’s one of the few stars who can laugh at himself, can come up with this embarrassing act.

Why does such a good actor, who has shown us he’s capable of inspired madness, take the easiest way out? And all that tacky self-referencing! Surely a sign of living off the glories of the past?

Alas, the Badshah has let himself be routed by a young beauty that he ushered into the court himself. Take away Deepika Padukone and there’s nothing left in this film (except perhaps for that delightful cameo by Lekh Tandon).

There’s one scene in the movie, which, for me, embodied Deepika’s triumph — when a panic-stricken Rahul starts blabbering (as usual), Meena calms him down: “Be normal!”

Do we sense mild panic in Shah Rukh Khan’s latest effort to stay at the top? His last four films (Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Don 2, Ra.One and My Name Is Khan) may have crossed Rs 100 crore in collections but what of SRK the actor? Most will agree his last really good performance (and film) was Chak De! and that was way back in 2007. Chennai Express may well mark Shah Rukh Khan’s greatest commercial high as a superstar but it is also the lowest point in the decline of the actor.

Do we blame it all on Rohit Shetty? Somehow I hesitate to. Shetty is a remarkably clear-headed, unpretentious director with great self-belief who makes no claims to being the best in the biz, or to aiming for immortal cinema. What he has achieved unequivocally is the position of being the most commercially successful director today, with four Rs 100 crore films in a row (the first three being Golmaal 3, Singham and Bol Bachchan). No other director has even two such films, though some of them may have higher grossers. Incredibly, Shetty has delivered the blockbusters at the rate of one every year.

He has often conceded himself that he’s not the most talented film-maker and that he makes entertainers, not films for “intellectuals”. But what he has done in Chennai Express is to stand the idea of the conventional Bollywood hero on its head: Rahul is a skinny, foolish, bumbling guy who is easily threatened and scared by goons. Now, that sounds more like the puny sidekick in college romcoms than a superstar. Rahul ends like a hero of course, but that’s a good storyline.

Shetty’s broken with convention with his leading lady too - a heroine named Meenamma, dressed in pavadais and a thick South Indian accent, without one glam costume even in the dream sequence - that’s the antithesis of the current Hindi film heroines.

Meenamma was such a delight, as was the director’s decision not to subtitle the Tamil dialogue. A high five to him for that.

Shetty may deliver his ideas in heavy-handed style, but here’s a director who is defying Bollywood traditions in his own manner. Shall we just say, to each his own?

(This article was published on August 15, 2013)
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