Spoilers ahead! Does that bother you? For a Rohit Shetty film, no less? Really? WhoWhat are you?

It helps, I think, to think of Chennai Express as a Hindi film set in Tamil Nadu for the benefit of non-Tamilians. The film often feels like a distilled cinematic expression of the benign bewilderment with which the North often views the South, set inside a madcap plot about a North Indian stuck in rural Tamil Nadu among a damsel in distress and a bunch of aruvaal-wielding goons. Which is surprising because Shetty probably isn’t all that clueless. Look at the song picturizations, for instance — Shankar would’ve been proud.

As a native Tamil speaker, I found myself getting quite distracted by the bewildering array of accents on display — Satyaraj speaks like he normally does, his goons speak like they are from Chennai rather than from a little village in Tamil Nadu, the villain and heroine speak like they were raised elsewhere, maybe Mumbai… I don’t think it would be noticeable to people who don’t know the language, so their experience of the film might be quite different.

Having said that, it’s surprising and somewhat gratifying that Rohit Shetty had the courage to make a film where more than a third of the dialogue was in a different language, and unsubtitled to boot. Or that it found so much favour with the masses (100 crores already, I hear) despite that. I suppose it accentuates the whole fish-out-of-water scenario and makes one identify with the hero’s predicament.

The trouble with the strategy, unfortunately, is that we aren’t seeing a character out of his element. We are seeing an actor looking uncomfortable — apart from the scenes where he gleefully spoofs his own career (and I have to admit he does that pretty well), SRK doesn’t look like he’s having much fun. He either comes across as desperate (when he’s doing broad comedy) or unconvincingly flat (when he’s doing romance or action).

The writing doesn’t help. His character, a 40-year old virgin who has been brought up by his grandparents, is supposed to go to Rameshwaram to immerse his late grandfather’s ashes. His plan is to go to Goa with his pals (apparently in search of hot NRI ladkiyaan) and immerse them there. Now, had he planned to go to Rameshwaram after his vacation in Goa rather than the other way round, I could’ve believed it. While Shahrukh Khan has traditionally been very good at playing douchebags of a certain kind, this one just doesn’t seem plausible.

On the other hand, Rahul’s relationship with Meena, the Tamil girl he runs into (their meet-cute is a delightful riff on his biggest hit), is a strange beast. While the story itself moves in fits and starts, their relationship progresses more or less logically from fear (mostly his) to irritation to tentative acceptance to love. Except, that is, when Shetty feels the need to throw in “romantic complications”. Falling in love while running for your life is easy — people have been doing it in the movies for decades now. But doing it while your characters are being yanked around by a writer like that can’t be much fun.

The sole reason why it works even partway is the presence of a leading lady who, bit by bit, has become an actress capable of being better than the material. Not that the material offers much competition here, but still. Deepika Padukone gets top billing in the fim’s opening credits and fully deserves it — she is far and away the best thing abut this film. I didn’t expect her to handle Shetty’s brand of broad comedy so well — her thickly accented Hindi, which I would normally be a bit miffed by, works well in the context of the film. (Her Tamil is another matter altogether, I’m afraid.) There is the odd dramatic scene where the accent disappears, leaving the ungrammatical Hindi dialogue just hanging there, looking around desperately for voice support. But I’m inclined to forgive and forget in light of how well she does otherwise.

Her best moment is a wordless scene where SRK has to carry her up a long flight to steps to a temple. While he is focused on doing the literal heavy lifting, she is the one who has to do it in the acting department, and manages to create a thing of beauty in the middle of all the sporadically manufactured mayhem that is this film.

What bugs me about her characterisation, though, is the ending, where Rahul gets to deliver an impassioned rant at the oppression of women, declare his love for Meena and fight off a bunch of goons to win her hand. This whole development feels completely inorganic to the proceedings (surely there was a lighter, sweeter, funnier way of handling things?), and SRK seems oddly unsuited for material that has, for him, been a cakewalk for so long (this is essentially a reworking of the DDLJ/Pardes ending) . But what really gets my goat is how Deepika’s character is reduced to a simpering bystander while men fight men and her dad plays referee. Here’s a girl who has proved herself to be resourceful, funny and free-spirited through the course of the film. Not to mention the girl who impressively kicks butt in one the film’s more memorable comic scenes. Why make her a lawn ornament when it comes to the crunch? I know better than to expect a feminist masterpiece here, but letting the damsels in distress stand up and rescue themselves would’ve been a more powerful statement than putting the heroine’s name first in the opening credits.

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