For months now — though it felt more like years — the gossip rags have gone on and on about the great rivalries, real and imagined, between the makers of Chennai Express and Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai Dobaara!, the two massive Bollywood productions originally scheduled for an Eid release date. Ultimately, like much else in the country, it was a conflict about real estate: getting your movie to as many screens as possible in order to make as much money as possible. Now that Raj Thackeray (PBUH) has intervened and convinced Ekta Kapoor and Co to move their release to next week, the field has been left open to Messrs Shetty and Khan to capitalise. Which they most certainly have done, raking in almost Rs 90 crore by Saturday itself in almost 4000 screens in India and more overseas, the biggest weekend opening ever for a Bollywood film.
But here’s the kicker — none of this was unexpected. The nature of the game means that all a film like Chennai Express has to do is show up. UTV’s savvy pre-release moves have ensured it released in roughly three times as many screens as 3 Idiots did — in some multiplexes, the only competition was that great mass entertainer, BA Pass — which translated to it making roughly three times as much money in the opening weekend. It looks fairly certain to become India’s greatest ever release.
All this is not to start another vague rant about the commercialisation of Bollywood. By all means, Chennai Express is a fairly run-of-the-mill commercial ‘mass entertainer’, and should be judged only as such. It certainly has all the flaws of the genre: a wafer-thin plot, blatant product placement, hammy acting, puerile jokes, ridiculous dialogue, a tendency to present alien cultures (for it treats its Tamil characters as just that) with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and a tearjerker finale that feels unreal, unearned and inexplicable. But even allowing for all that, there is much about the film that, much like three-day-old sambar, seems off.
Maybe it’s the general lack of exploding trucks. Shetty often seems out of his element by having to tone down his Michael Bey act to satisfy Shah Rukh’s sensibilities, and too often relies on the crutch of referencing SRK films (it’s not a running gag if it’s every other joke). Of course, the film more fits the other kind of cinema he knows how to make, the slapstick comedy, with results that are patchy at best; in any case, the jokes — which seem meticulously proportioned between high and lowbrow for both single-screen and multiplex audiences — are a marked improvement from his Golmaal films. Shah Rukh, on his part, plays the blundering buffoon well thanks to his excellent comic timing, especially when he has material to work with, but the numerous catchphrases the script saddles him with make his performance quite tedious by the second half. Padukone looks like she is having fun, even if her accent is a little too Mehmoodesque to be taken seriously.
The mantle of the highest-grossing Bollywood film ever — one that is by no means a given for Chennai Express, whose record-breaking run could well be halted when it hands over 40 percent of its screens to OUATIMD — has been held by some of the industry’s most iconic films. If Shetty’s film does indeed overhaul 3 Idiots and claim it, it will be by far the most forgettable one to do so (say what you will about Gadar; it was anything but forgettable). But these films have been testaments to the times they were made in. Perhaps an era characterised by diminishing attention spans and conveyor-belt films deserves a Chennai Express to define it for posterity.