Film Review: Chennai Express

Old Hollywood-style musical romance of a candy-store clerk from the city and a country crime-lord's runaway daughter is frothy, fast-moving fun.

Like the southbound train of the title, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan's romantic action-comedy-musical Chennai Express barrels forward with barely a stop to rest. Capturing the innocent joy of old Technicolor Hollywood, it finds Khan—playing a 40-year-old candy-store clerk who gets sidetracked (so to speak) with a mobster's daughter while headed to a beach vacation with friends—channeling no less than Danny Kaye. And he goes even further: Despite the slight surrealism that musicals entail, the talented Khan easily switches to drama when the stakes are high and our hero gets a beating more Martin Scorsese than Vincente Minnelli.

Chennai Express is also the latest Indian film to try to bridge the gap between culturally traditional South India—which has its own Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam-language cinema—and more worldly Mumbai, the seat of Bollywood. One early comic sequence involves our hero Rahul (Khan) and daddy's-girl runaway Meenamma (Deepika Padukone, his co-star in 2007's reincarnation-romance hit Om Shanti Om) singing an escape plot in Hindi since daddy's goons, who are retrieving her, only speak Tamil. (Without giving a spoiler, there's a very funny twist to this later.) Rahul—who winds up with her in an insular, Cosa Nostra-style community where blood feuds abound and local don Dugeshwara (the single-name Sathyaraj, née Rangaraj Subbaiah) owns every cop for kilometers around—may as well be in another world. Sicily, for instance.

India being India, Rahul's predicament seems karmic payback: The callow sweets-seller had misled his trusting grandmother by taking the first southbound train he saw in order to meet up with his buddies, double back, and dump Grandpa's ashes in a river near Goa rather than into the ocean off out-of-the-way Rameshwaram. Like, who wants to go to the state of Tamil Nadu anyway? Would a New Yorker really want to dump Grandpa's ashes off Mobile, Alabama?

The language barrier also gets played for laughs when Meenamma—who ran away to escape an arranged marriage with Tangaballi (Nikitin Dheer), the thuggish crime-lord of another village—tells Rahul to just nod his head at whatever she tells her irate father. To Rahul's dismay, that basically translates to "Dad, meet my fiancé." And so like Kaye in The Court Jester, similarly forced to duel the blackhearted Sir Griswold, Rahul must face off against the giant Tangaballi. And this being a Bollywood adventure, that means he has to do it not once, not twice, but three times—the first two comedic, the third deadly serious, with an emphasis on "deadly."

Director Shetty, who made his mark with the 2006-2010 trio of Golmaal comedy hits, plays things broadly, even for Bollywood, but with a heartfelt hand and genuine suspense. Rahul darts from one misadventure, misimpression and mistaken identity to the next, involving everything from a darkened storeroom occupied by too many romantic couples to an idyllic village where he and Meenamma, stuck with each other during one of their escapes, wind up having to complete a religious physical challenge. And hey, if Rahul suddenly finds himself getting shot at from a police helicopter while on a Sri Lankan gunrunning boat in international waters? Well, who hasn't had that happen to them?

The filmmakers makes conscious use of postcard locales—you'll want to go live in that village where they find refuge—including the Tea Gardens of Munnar, where one musical sequence is set, and the dreamlike Pamban Bridge in the ocean connecting Rameswaram with the mainland. They also craft visually inventive transitions, including one that hilariously mimics the Walt Disney Pictures opening logo, with an evening train running through marshlands as the camera swirls right to the point where the Enchanted Kingdom's castle should appear. (Disney bought a controlling stake of the Mumbai-based media conglomerate UTV, the film's distributor, early last year.)

The exotic beauty of the countryside helps give Chennai Express a hook for American audiences, just as lovingly photographed Europe helped foreign movies gain a foothold here in the 1950s. And of course, its Old Hollywood comedic romance knows no language. (Neither, unfortunately, do the non-subtitled big musical sequences—it's always a crapshoot whether the songs are subtitled or not, and always an annoyance.)