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The cultural — and especially linguistic — divide between North and South India goes back to the age of the Rig Veda, but as Rohit Shetty’s comedy Chennai Express demonstrates, the subject is still relevant today. In the right hands, it’s also rich fodder for comedy.
Chennai Express, starring Shah Rukh Khan as Rahul, a Mumbai singleton, and Deepika Padukone as the daughter of a Tamil Nadu crime don, opened on the holiday of Eid al-Fitr Aug. 8 on a record 3,500 screens in India and 700-plus screens abroad, including 196 in the United States, reportedly one of the largest global releases ever for an Indian film.
Its broad comedy will appeal to wide audiences, and first class box office returns are expected. Although the film serves as a charming introduction to audiences new to the Bollywood genre, those well studied in the history of Shah Rukh Khan movies will be most rewarded, since the screenplay (Yunus Sajawal) and songs (Vishal-Shekhar) make dozens of references to his earlier films.
The story follows Rahul as he grudgingly agrees to scatter his late grandfather’s ashes in the waters off Rameshwaram, a pilgrimage site at the farthest corner of southeastern Tamil Nadu. He boards a train at Mumbai, fully intending to detour to Goa instead with his bachelor buddies, but a series of mishaps finds him entangled with a beautiful seatmate, Meena (Padukone), who is on the run from an arranged marriage to Tangaballi, a brute in her home village (played by the striking Nikitin Dheer, 6’4′ but shot to appear seven feet tall).
Khan and Padukone, reuniting after the memorable 2007 romance Om Shanti Om, are beautifully paired despite a 20-year age difference, while Khan’s gift for effortlessly moving between comedy and love scenes is complemented by Padukone’s striking beauty and comic chops. Rohit Shetty, the director of Singham and the Golmaal comedy trilogy, confidently packs this two-and-a-half-hour film with enough laughs to keep the pace brisk, but for a couple of interminable fight scenes, a staple of the genre.
The trend of South Indian films being remade in Hindi, such as Ghajini, Wanted, Policegiri, Bodyguard, Force and others, has opened up a new appreciation in Bollywood for the relatively more garish, colorful, noisy style from down South — complete with slow-motion explosions and comical scenes punctuated by (superfluous) sound effects.
But at the same time as audiences are warming to their cinematic style, some viewers in Tamil Nadu have complained that Chennai Express mocks South Indians. Although Padukone, who was raised in Bangalore, has come out in defense of the film’s characterization of South Indians, and the closing credits feature a song honoring Tamil superstar Rajnikanth, Tamils are protesting Shetty’s depiction of their culture, saying it demeans South Indians; they also criticize Padukone’s on-again-off-again Tamil-accented Hindi.
Perhaps the best approach is suggested by one Indian commentator debating the topic on a popular film site: “This film is for having fun only.”
Opened: Aug. 8, 2013 (UTV)
Production company: Red Chilies Entertainment
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Satyaraj, Priya Mani, Nikitin Dheer
Director: Rohit Shetty
Screenwriter: Yunus Sajawal
Producers: Gauri Khan, Karim Morani, Ronnie Screwvala & Siddharth Roy Kapur
Executive producers: Rohit Chaudhary, Anil Sable
Director of photography: Dudley
Music: Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani
Production Designer: Narendra Rahurikar
Editor: Steven Bernardv
Unrated, 140 minutes
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