Hardcore Bollywood fans have to work hard to find new movies when they open in the U.S. They tend to be press-screened in New York, not L.A., and the faithful have to track down the neighborhood theaters that play them–whether in Culver City, Covina or Artesia. The movies are often three hours long, so a Chai break at intermission is always welcome. You never know whether you’re going to get a winner. You can usually count on Aamir Khan (“Lagaan,” 2001), who works at the top of the Bollywood pyramid, but you take your chances with just about everyone else.
UTV Motion Pictures’ romantic action comedy “Chennai Express” broke all stateside Bollywood box office records last weekend with $2,225,000 in 196 locations and a huge $11,352 per screen average. The old record of $1,944,027 had been held since 2010 by “My Name is Khan,” also starring Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan. “Chennai Express” also beat the five-day Christmas holiday weekend opening of $2,149,227 for 2009’s “3 Idiots,” starring Aamir Khan, which holds the record for the largest lifetime gross for a Bollywood film with a cume of $6,533,849. (Review round up, Hey Guys video interview and trailer are below.)
In “Chennai Express” (in Hindi and Tamil with English subtitles), Shah Rukh Khan plays a man who journeys to a small town in Tamil Nadu in order to fulfill the last wish of his grandfather to have his ashes immersed in the Holy water of Rameshwaram. En route, he meets and falls in love with a South Indian girl (Deepika Padukone); they embark on a series of adventures on the road.
Called by the LA Times “the world’s biggest movie star,” Khan’s fans number in the billions. In 2008, Newsweek named him one of the 50 most powerful people in the world. Born in Delhi in 1965 and raised there, SRK is now 47, a few years shy of the age achieved by the superstar of a previous generation, Amitabh Bachchan, in the early ’90s, when he was eclipsed by the stars who were to rule the roost in the coming decades, the so-called Three Khans, Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh. But SRK seems in no danger of being eclipsed in turn. An excellent actor and one of Bollywood’s best dancers ever, he has been a major movie star continuously for twenty years, with an unbroken string of hits.
Throughout his career Khan has been known for playing obstreperous sometimes crazy lovers in such romantic vehicles as “Dil To Pagal Hai” (“The Heart is Crazy,” 1997), “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” (“Some Things Just Happen,” 1998), “Kal Ho Naa Ho” (“Tomorrow May Not Come,” 2003) and “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi” (“A Match Made By God,” 2008). But he has also made a point of taking strong dramatic roles in films such as “Devdas” (2002) and “My Name is Khan” (2010). In two of the biggest recent hits he returned to his anti-hero roots playing an elusive and glamorous gangster in Farhan Akhtar’s highly successful remake of one of Bachchan’s biggest hits of the ’70s, “Don: The Chase Begins Again” (2006) and its sequel “Don 2: The Chase Continues” (2011), the latter in 3-D.
“Chennai Express” marks a departure for Shah Rukh Khan. He’s working for the first time with relatively new director Rohhit Shetty, who is the only current Bollywood film director to direct three films in a row that grossed 100 crore rupees ($23,000,000.00): “Golmaal 3” (2010), “Singham” (“Lion, 2011) and “Bol Bachchan” (2012). “Golmaal” (“Fishy,” 2006) and its two sequels are fast-paced and colorful slapstick action comedies that are anything but subtle (every sight gag is punctuated with a boing/splat sound effect). “Singham” had less comedy and more head-banging action, in the slow-mo/bullet time style of regional South India Tamil Tamil and Malayalam films.
Hollywood could learn from Bollywood. Kahn told The Guardian what Bollywood movies have going for them:
Right from my very first film and all of the films I’ve grown up watching, it’s always had a little bit of everything. It’s had romance, colour, it’s had action, song and has had dance. And I think that’s what makes our films so universally appealing. A five-year old can watch it, and an elderly person can watch it. You can watch it with your family, and you can watch it with your loved one. I mean I don’t know any other way, this is how it’s always been.
On paper, “Chennai Express” is as safe a bet as blockbusters get: a director with a string of hits to his name (Rohit Shetty) working with two huge movie stars (Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone) whose previous collaboration yielded commercial and critical success (2007’s “Om Shanti Om”). Add romance, comedy, action, and adventure, and you should be all set. Although Hollywood has seen would-be blockbusters falter this year, most of those were either prohibitively expensive to begin with, in unpopular genres, or marketed poorly (if at all). “Chennai Express” would seem to have none of those issues, and the only business-related question remaining is whether it’s going to be a big hit, or an enormous hit.
The humor is pretty one-note in Rohit Shetty’s comedy/romance/actioner “Chennai Express.” Cast as a sheltered 40-year-old suddenly thrust into multiple perilous situations, superstar Shah Rukh Khan repeatedly reacts with craven cowardice and flashes of false bravado; though played for laughs, his behavior comes across more as moral laxity than hilarious evasiveness. It doesn’t help that co-star Deepika Padukone is so likable as the rebellious daughter of a southern don, rendering the antipathy between their characters somewhat gratuitous. This North-South culture-clash laffer set an opening-day B.O. record in India with $1.1 million (beating the previous champ, “3 Idiots”), but elsewhere, its popularity may depend on audiences’ willingness to wait two hours for Khan to transform into his heroic self.
“Chennai Express” feels like a sumptuous meal with carefully chosen wine and tasty appetizers but a botched main course. Money and visual care have been lavished on this Bollywood action-comedy-romance and glossy stars engaged (Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone). But the movie chugs along for most of its 2 hours and 20 minutes searching for comedy and characters in a frantically overplotted story.