Shahrukh Khan and the journey of Chennai Express

Chennai Express Shahrukh Khan - Kartik Dayanand - Minduread

 “I am normal, naam toh suna hi hoga”

In one of the many goofy scenes from Chennai Express, Shahrukh Khan (SRK) rattles his trademark dialogue but mistakenly uses the word ‘Normal’ in place of ‘Rahul’. It was intended to be a pun but it aptly sums up the box office phenomenon of Chennai Express and how Shahrukh Khan finally after a long hiatus gets back to being normal - which is - being the king of the box office.

His last normal movie was Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi way back in 2008. A lot has happened since then and Chennai Express arrives like all Indian trains, late by at least 4 odd years but is a wait well worth it for die hard SRK fans. What happened inbetween both these movies is what forms the bulk of this post and then I will go on to speak a little more about Chennai Express and a little more about SRK. If you are not a Shahrukh Khan fan, than this post is probably not for you, don't say I didn't warn you!
Ok, I am kidding, I want you to read it too.

Let’s now press the rewind button.

Where is SRK?

SRK’s last genuine hit film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi was soon overshadowed by the earth shattering collections of Aamir Khan’s Ghajini which started the trend of the 100 crore club in Bollywood. The year was 2008. The very next year, Aamir went on to star in 3 Idiots and set the bar at the box office even higher.

After taking a considerable gap, SRK came back with My Name Is Khan in 2010 but his focus wasn’t anymore on the domestic box office, he was aiming for the international market or maybe even the Oscars. In the process he stopped being himself. The movie had its share of flaws and didn't live up to the hype.

SRK tried to up the ante and aim much higher the next time and ‘Ra.One’ was the end result. Sadly it was a mixed bag again. What we got to see was a misfit South Indian and a confused Robot - there was no SRK to be seen anywhere.

One might say, he was all over the place promoting his films from every platform available online and offline, where is the question of missing him? 

Fact is SRK was everywhere but nowhere to be seen!

The singing, dancing, witty, intense, emotional SRK on screen was nowhere to be seen. Despite Chammak Challo, we stopped caring for him somewhere between all those promotions and brand endorsements.

Then Don 2 happened. SRK tried hard once again and though we got to see the Don, SRK was missed sorely. There was hardly any emotional connect with the character unlike the first part where for the most part we really care for him because we don't know that he is the bad guy.

His next, Jab Tak Hai Jaan looked like the perfect vehicle for SRK to strike back but alas the movie had some fundamental flaws. SRK did things in the movie which went against the concept of SRK (he broke his rule of never kissing his heroines on screen, was he desperate now?). Also it seemed too obvious that he was gunning for his NRI/Punjabi audience base, nothing else explains the Challa song in the movie.

Meanwhile, Salman Khan went ahead in the race at the box office churning out one blockbuster after another as he realised the power of the common man, the NRIs were secondary for him.

Now who the hell is this common man and why is he suddenly so important now? Even SRK keeps saying “Don’t underestimate the power of a common man” repeatedly in Chennai Express. Here is why...

Return of the Rikshawala

In the last 5 years, the world around us has changed unimaginably for good and for worse. We now have social networks, YouTube, smart phones, malls and multiplexes among other things which hardly existed few years back. During the same period, global recession set in, the NRI dream turned into a bubble, the honeymoon was over for many and inflation shot up like a rocket.

In the earlier decades there was this saying that most Indian movies were made to suit the tastes and appeal to the rickshawalas (a generic term used to describe the hard working class). For, he came to the theatre to let go of his stress and to see the hero prancing around with the heroine and then bash up all the bad guys. It was escapist cinema at its best.

Masala action movies and love stories were the staple diet of Bollywood for a long time!

Somewhere down the line Bollywood stopped making films for the rickshawalas. It found a more intelligent audience to cater to. All was fine for over a decade until the recession and subsequent hike in the ticket prices made everyone into a rickshawala once again.

Almost everyone today thinks twice before spending his or her hard earned money on multiplex tickets as well as the popcorn. It is much easier to catch the same film for free on TV or to download it from the net. Going to the movies has become more like a big ticket sporting event or similar to attending a huge family event or wedding. One goes there to have fun and relive a fantasy that is far better than reality.

Hollywood realised this phenomenon quite some time back and hence started churning out one sequel after another to whatever super heroes it could lay its hands on. While the super heroes went on to star in record breaking blockbuster movies, all other forms of movies took a backseat.

The big got bigger as the audience craved or were willing to spend money on only known devils (superheroes and sequels) rather than unknown ones!

Creativity they say is dead in Hollywood today just because of this and studios are unwilling to experiment anymore.

Closer home, Salman Khan realised this phenomenon early on but it took time for SRK to catch up despite starring in a superhero movie and a sequel - the masala filled Chennai Express is his first attempt at making amends with the new generation of rickshawalas. All he had to do was to play himself. Now you know why SRK keeps repeating the line “Don't underestimate the power of a common man”. 

But why Chennai Express?

Though Bollywood went away from the rickshawalas, south film industry never went away from that formula and instead further reinforced that idea in the form of greater hero centric films. You will be amazed to see how many times south heroes play the same characters repeatedly and the audience continues to flock to the theatres to lap it all up eagerly.

Bollywood found the easiest way out by remaking south films and Salman Khan is the leader here once again. Wanted, Ready and Bodyguard were all remakes and Dabangg series has a distinct local flavour that is a trademark of South films.

Not to be outdone, SRK does the next best thing – instead of a remake he makes a direct south film and inserts himself into it as a North Indian character. Chennai Express as a concept is a master stroke and an ingenious idea. All he had to do next was to play himself and the results now show at the box office.

I was sceptical though!

I wondered how SRK would dumb himself down to the sensibilities of a mass masala audience. Surprisingly, contrary to what critics say, Chennai Express isn't about leaving your brains home. It is an exercise in using your brains well. Here is why I say that...

Desi Inception

I realised this quite late but it happened few months back when I was watching a blockbuster Telugu film called Baadshah. Every minute of the movie was hilariously side splitting, yet if one were to subtitle the film and show it to a non Telugu audience, none of the jokes would make sense. Because every dialogue is a self reference to the character’s previous movies or something related to recent popular culture. Unless one was aware of the actor’s past work or about current affairs one would not be able to make sense of even a single dialogue.

This was a brainless comedy of a different type, where one had to constantly use the brain trying to decipher multiple levels of inception that the director was inflicting upon us. To script a movie of that sort where the humour has its roots in history is an interesting challenge for any script writer – with due apologies to Christopher Nolan, I would like to call this Desi Inception!

Chennai Express resorts to the same formula. There are multiple self references and SRK being a treasure trove of history, the director milks his past to the max right from DDLJ to Dil Se to My Name Is Khan, there is an abundance of un-apparently intelligent scenes throughout Chennai Express. And since the director himself is someone with a successful track record he inserts his bit of history too. Rohit Shetty really knows his stuff; Singham Ki Kasam!

The End

In between all the madness and fun of Chennai Express, SRK manages to switch on his charm and bump up the emotional quotient by the time the movie reaches its climax. Just like Raj from DDLJ who shows rare emotional depth while being frivolous on the outside, Rahul in Chennai Express acts like the jester for most part of the movie but utters the simplest yet most important line of the movie when he says...

“It is good to be important, but it is more important to be good”

That is the quintessential SRK for us but speaking in a language that is more universal and apt for the current generation.

Notwithstanding the harsh reviews from critics and self appointed intellectuals, the movie is racing ahead like nobody's business at the box office precisely for this very reason, it has a certain simplicity that appeals to the common man who isn't bothered about technicalities and logic, all he wants to do is to go and have a blast at the movies and Chennai Express is his ticket to the perfect destination that can provide him all that he seeks.

Oh damn, I finished writing almost 2000 words and not one mention of Deepika Padukone’s amazing performance. More about that on Twitter and Facebook, for now, I am happy to just see SRK back to being normal, and to where he belongs, at the top.

Till then,

Kartik Dayanand Boddapati

Ps. South films do a much more idiotic job of stereotyping themselves, in case you are wondering if Chennai Express crosses the line anywhere.

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  1. Excellent, balanced and sensible post!! Bravo! I am not a die hard SRK fan but i completely see where you are coming from with this. I havent seen Chennai Express, but I also found a lot of the criticism overbearing and almost vindictive (fashion on social media nowadays I suppose). Your post sets a tiny bit of the balance right. Fantastic.

  2. Hi, I always felt that SRK has a good comic timing, and loved Chennai Express more for that. Bollywood thrives on stereotypes and hackneyed stories, and yet amidst all that this one somewhere makes a connect. Never thought about the nuances of this movie, but as a hardcore Bollywood buff, your words make a whole lot of sense to me. Great reading?

  3. Ignore the q mark at the end, please. Thanks.


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