What Bollywood Can Teach You About India: Chennai Express Edition

north indian people generally won’t respect our south people instead of they will trust the kerala people(most cheatead person in india),but north people won’t give a proper respect to telegu,kannada and tamil people.that’s why we hate them in case if they visit to any southern india most top metro city like banglore,chennai and hyderabad.in punjab i heard about the experience of my releatives that most of the sikhs are mistreating and hurting the southern india people so after we reading this type of stories in the news paper we are getting a very angry with them that why we are hate them.- Online forum 2010

The real reason why some South Indian retarded bros hate North Indians bros.Their women look like crap. In fact, 90% of the top actresses in South Indian films are actually North Indian. In other words, some of them are such racist, sexist aspie virgin losers that they fantasize about North Indian women while hating North India. Spread the word around bros.Online Forum 2014

North indians use lot of ghee, south indians use less ghee datz it. other than dat no difference my INDIA IS GREAT – Online forum 2010

India is a lot bigger than it looks on a map, and a lot more complicated than it seems when you are learning about India in 9th grade world history class. I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school I learned the history of India thusly (roughly, to be fair, it has been like 14 years) Indus River Valley, something about Hinduism i.e. karma, dharma, four castes (if only it were that simple…) Mauryan Empire, Gupta Empire (aka Kama Sutra time, let’s be real) long gap in the middle (which I have since learned were a series of invasions from Timurid and Safavid and Turqik groups but at the time it was just like….crickets) British Empire, Sati, Sepoys, Independence in 1947 and all good in the hood after that. The cultural and historic differences between Northern and Southern India? NOPE.

But apparently that is a thing, as so many people have assured me, and as I have in fact had occasion to figure out for myself. I think, honestly, that the thing that happened is that the North has generally run a far better and more extensive PR campaign, making sure that when people think India they think North. The food, the music, the movies, the clothing, most of the dominant visuals out there scream “Northern India”. From paneer to Priyanka Chopra, everything we are getting in the rest of the world is Northern Indian focused, so the serious educationally minded Southerners with their simple clothing, their excellent food, their respect for women, and other quant things like that, just haven’t put themselves out there. If cultures could join dating apps, Punjab would be all over everything from JDate (why not? Ladies love a beard, am I right?) to Tinder, while Tamil Nadu would still be trying to figure out how to describe itself in a way that feels, just, really honest and real, you know?

As for myself, the more I learn about Southern India the more I feel deceived. Once, while watching cricket (well, Mr. India was watching cricket, I was trying to figure out what the hell cricket is) I pointed out the players I found attractive, and Mr. India and I realized that I seem to find South Indians waaaay better looking than their pale wheat-fed counterparts, which is a shame, because I’ve really committed to my Northern Indian husband with this three wedding thing. My only excuse is that I legit did not know what else was out there, another example of the North really dominating the international imagination. I wish we’d seen that Mad Men episode where Don Draper re-brands India for the North, enigmatically finding the slogan If you want more, try the tandoor while sipping whiskey and thinking about the concept of identity in a changing world, as Peggy tries to learn the sitar and Betty swoons over the spice in a curry, but I don’t think Weiner released that one….

Although my research for my next big project (a novel set in Mughal India) has taken me North, I would very much like to explore more of the South, where the rice is plentiful, the oil is of the coconut, and the chicken is, I’m not kidding here, fried. So I figured my next film to feature and learn from should be the Bollywood mega hit, Chennai Express! After all, it features two massive stars, it’s two and a half hours long, and it has Chennai right there in the name! What better way to learn about South India than a film described thusly: “a loud, lame-brained romantic comedy from the (very) broad directorial brush of Rohit Shetty, SRK’s over-hyped vehicle sees the charismatic but ageing actor badly miscast and easily overshadowed by his leading lady, Deepika Padukone.” (Simon Foster of the Special Broadcasting Service

Oh boy. Hope you packed a snack and some booze. Let’s get on board the, what is it again? Don’t worry if you forget the title initially. YOU. NEVER. WILL. AGAIN.

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OKAY! So, Shah Rukh Khan is a Bollywood star worth his literal weight (and more, because he’s keeping it pretty fit at 50) in gold. He’s a huge huge huge deal and I had never heard of him before I started dating Mr. India which just goes to show how Hollywood’s cultural exchange is pretty much a one way street. Seriously, this guy is big, globally big, big-in-China big, but because he doesn’t do American or British films it’s like who now?

In this movie, he plays Rahul, a 40-year-old (virgin? Maybe? Sure seems that way) whose parents died when he was young and who was raised by his grandparents and works in the family business, confectionary stores. When his grandfather passes away, Rahul wants to take a trip to Goa, ostensibly to lose his virginity (there is some intimation that Rahul has, like, never left home because his grandfather loved him too much, and therefore never experienced adult relationships and relations? Unclear) instead of mourning his grandfather like a decent human being. Come on, Rahul.

But his grandmother, perhaps sensing Rahul’s desire to dose himself in Goan rum and Russian hookers, massively cockblocks him by sitting him down in front of their conveniently located indoor sunset :

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And asking him to take half of his grandfather’s ashes to Rameswaram, which the internet has told me is in Tamil Nadu.

Lesson number 1! Important conversations must be had in front of sunsets, real or faked. This is going to come around again, get ready.

Rahul is not thrilled by this, because, um, Goa! But he figures he can just pour out the ashes in Goa because all rivers run into each other eventually and then he can get back to trying to recreate that beach sex scene from From Here To Eternity with a semi-literate Latvian sex worker. Fun. So Rahul plans this laughable scheme to get on the Chennai Express (But, that’s the movie title! What?) to fool the woman who raised him from childhood and is mourning the loss of her husband into thinking her beloved grandson is fulfilling his grandfather’s dying wish instead of partying on a beach and contracting an STD.

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Nice, Rahul. Real nice.

Lesson number two! Grandparents are all very well but getting laid in Goa is infinitely more important, therefore it’s completely acceptable to lie to your grandmother if you have better stuff to do than scatter your dead grandfather’s ashes.

So he gets on the train. This is what the ashes look like and this seems like a terrible vessel for travel:

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But what do I know, I haven’t done this before. So Rahul puts these ashes in a very easy to forget place and you are like, boy, I sure hope he doesn’t at some point forget to grab those ashes!

Lesson number three! Never put precious things like the ashes of a human being you loved inside your bag. Keep it on the outside, so more drama can ensue!

And then this chick comes running up. To understand this moment, you would have had to have seen the massive massive Bollywood megahit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which is a decent movie that Mr. Indian showed me when I was horribly sick on my 27th birthday. It’s actually pretty good, although not the hard-hitting examination of the Indian Immigrant experience that SOME of us (aka me) would have liked, and it’s a classic, in fact, it still plays in theaters in India despite being over 20 years old. If it ain’t broke…so anyway in that movie Shahrukh Khan (some people call him SRK but I don’t know him like that) helps Kajol, the actress, one name like Cher, onto a moving train a few times, and now it’s like that scene in Battleship Potempkin where the baby carriage falls down the stairs.

Oh my goodness. That’s India’s Battleship Potempkin. God help us all.

Okay, so Deepika Padukone, another mega mega actress here who will actually soon be visible in the West because she’s going to be…in that new triple X movie (say it with me, OH, HONEY, NO), is actually from South India, although her native language is Konkani, not Tamil, but hey, close enough! She is running down the platform looking all South Indian and desperate and Rahul is like, maybe she too wants to be on the Chennai Express and I should help her onto the Chennai Express:

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Rahul is a great guy, so he helps her on. And then four huge dudes who are clearly running after her also want to get on. So Rahul helps them on too!

Lesson number four comes straight from another Southern Drama, when heading South from Mumbai, always depend on the kindness of strangers!

Rahul tries to get off the train but realizes he left the ashes OUTSIDE OF HIS BAG so he has to go back for them and gets stuck. Jesus, Rahul.

Deepika’s character, Meena, is like, COME ON, DUDE! Do you not recognize an escape when you see it? But here is where the hilarious North South humor is really going to start to kill it, because of course the crew, big burley dudes, only speak Tamil, and Rahul only speaks Hindi, and Meena pretends to sing Bollywood songs but really she is explaining what’s happening and these are her father’s goons dragging her back to Tamil Nadu against her will to marry someone in her village, and her father, a mafia don, can make that happen despite her desire for her own life.

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Lessons number five and six, In South India it is, in fact, socially acceptable to bring a gun to a knife fight, and everyone in South India has their own machete, which is really cool, if you think about it, because hey, who doesn’t want a machete?

Now, here’s where it gets tricky, right, because although Meena talks about having her own life…we will never over the course of that movie understand what it is Meena is up to. Like, does Meena have a job? Is she studying? Why was she in Mumbai in the first place? What’s Meena’s alternate plan? What are her hopes, her dreams, her ambitions? We will never know this for Meena, but you’re in luck, gentle reader, because I’m going to make some up for her!

(For those of you playing along at home, this movie adds ZERO options to our running list of “jobs women can do in India” so we are still down to five, model, actress, calendar girl, doctor, migrant worker turned sex slave.)

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Here, where Rahul is telling Meena about how fancy his phone is, she’s thinking about the future of the tech world and how she can’t wait to put her mark on it with her new idea for a start-up working with rural hospitals to help them access digital communication.

Meena’s plans are rudely interrupted by the goons, who throw the phone away and now the unlikely duo, Rahul with his weird high angry voice, and Meena with her dead tech dreams, are off to Kohbam, her village.

Rahul wakes up in the South and rudely refuses breakfast, forcing one of the goons to ask the same question anyone would in this situation:

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Lesson number seven, South Indians are a generous people who will, despite kidnapping and terrorizing you, give you access to delightful breakfast foods for which you should be grateful.

And then they arrive in the village, whose mafia is clean and well-organized. Man, the South looks so great! Waterfalls and an orderly well-organized mafia? Sign me UP.

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We meet Meena’s father, who proves lesson number eight is true, that it’s extremely difficult for a man to look like a bad-ass while wearing a skirt. Scotland has the same problem. You guys should really get together and figure this out. Maybe it’s an accessories issue?

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So Meena tells everyone she and Rahul are in love, which doesn’t go down all that well, and they get dragged back to her village where Rahul will confront almost certain death, something Meena does not seem worried about AT ALL. It’s nice that Rahul and Meena are both a bit terrible, I guess.

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Everyone gives Rahul food. Deepika looks like I look at Indian events except I almost always have a drink in my hands. Call me next time, Deepika! I’ll get you some wine!

There is one Sikh guy in the village, a police officer, who is in the pay of the Don and is like, good luck, dude! to Rahul. Lesson number ten! Sikhs are everywhere, and they are always police officers. If you see a Sikh, he’s a police officer. If you see a police officer, ask him about being Sikh!

Rahul inadvertently accepts a the challenge from Meena’s Don approved fiance Tangaballi for a duel, because lesson number eleven, contemporary Tamil Nadu is surprisingly similar to Regency England and Russia and duels are a real thing that happen.

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Meena and Rahul discuss this, and remind us about the veracity of rule number one.  As Rahul prepares for this fight there is a dance number, which makes no sense at all and features a woman who never appears in this film ever again but who exhibits the kind of behavior I was warned pretty strictly against before I moved to India:

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See? Revealing clothing, being alone at night, amidst a large group of men, her walk is the focus of male attention? If it were Delhi this movie would have taken a pretty rough turn, but here in the South it seems okay! Lesson number twelve! In Tamil Nadu you can #takebackthenight

Rahul, now drunk, proceeds to make hurtful comments about other people’s weight:

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And then he runs away, aided by the Sikh Police guy (I’m telling you, they are hooked up!) who puts him in a place that LITERALLY BECOMES A BOAT. I DON’T KNOW HOW THIS HAPPENS. IT IS NEVER EXPLAINED.

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Lesson number thirteen, anything can just become anything else in Southern India! All doors lead to Narnia! It’s chaos!

So yeah, the boat is a smuggling boat getting gas from Sri Lanka….okay. And it’s immediately caught by the police (worst. smugglers. ever) who arrest Rahul as a smuggler too even though he claims to be Indian and speaks Hindi. They decide to take him back to the village to check out his story instead of oh, I don’t know, running his prints, locating his passport, doing actual detective work. That Sikh guy is carrying the whole squad, I tell you.

Back in the village, this is happening:

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Meena, upset by the knowledge that her small South Indian catering business isn’t doing well in her absence, accepts the marriage sadly. When Rahul returns he finally gets himself a machete, because Lesson six means he gets one too, I guess there was just a hold up on the paperwork or whatever, and fakes taking Meena hostage in order for them both to escape.

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Because Rahul is also apparently a secret getaway stunt driver, he is able to fend off and defeat the literal hordes of people who chase them, destroying this beautiful orderly village in the process. Nice, Rahul. Lesson number fourteen! The South is a lovely place and people from the North totally come and ruin it.

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So now Meena and Rahul are in a vaguely wooded area and they fight about who ruined whose life and walk off in different directions. Here in Mumbai a friend I know wont travel in a rickshaw if her jewelry looks too nice for fear of theft but Meena seems fine with it proving yet again the South is clearly a really safe place for women.

Rahul meets a midget in the jungle. I don’t really know what to say about this so I’m just going to leave it there.

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MOVING ON. Remember when this was a movie about a train? I sure don’t!

Rahul finds Meena again and they decide to keep escaping together despite it being a terrible plan. It’s worth noting at this point that these two actors have so little chemistry that it’s like watching strangers meet at a business networking event whenever they speak. I keep looking for a name tag.

Anyway, they make it to this nearby village and, like, share their life stories or whatever. Meena does not take this opportunity to talk about the groundbreaking sociological study she’s developing or its potential implications for human behavioral research, so I guess she’s saving that for later. Rahul reveals that he’s an orphan and Meena reveals that she does not know how orphans work:

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Then, at night, Meena is literally possessed by a demon and should probably speak to a therapist about her recurring sleep kicking and also the demon that lives inside of her. This is one of those scene where you can just tell the actress was like, think of the money. This is a movie with Shah Rukh Khan. It’s worth it. THINK OF THE MONEY. 

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The next day Rahul wakes up and sees Meena hanging out with villagers, presumably talking about her PhD Thesis in Women’s Studies where she examines the impact of Western Feminist readings of seminal works by Indian Female Authors.

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They’re all pretty excited, you can tell.

So the couple now has to do this ritual where Rahul carries Meena up 300 stairs to a temple so their fake marriage can last forever. It is a good thing Mr. India is not from this small village because he would literally not even try. He would be like, well, we gave it our best shot, and call a divorce lawyer.

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But Rahul proves that forty is the new thirty and gets Meena up those stairs to the cleanest temple in India:

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Where Meena finds out she has real feelings for her fake husband when he puts vermillion on her hair like a bride would have. This is very emotional for her, perhaps because of her background in Southeast Asian cultural anthropology.

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It also sparks a song sequence. I can’t even.

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The hills are alive with the sounds of kill me.

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Lesson number fifteen, flower wastage is a major issue in Southern India.

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Lesson number sixteen, sometimes you are having a fantasy dance sequence and idols just come to life nearby and it is terrifying.

OKAY. So obviously because they literally WALKED to this village it’s not all that far away from Meena’s village and Tangaballi finds them, but because the villagers like them and believe in their love story, they hold off Tangaballi in a very gentle group resistance movement by coming together as a group and hugging him. It’s weird, but it works. Lesson number seventeen! The South is where you can really find non-violence in action.

So Rahul and Meena drive off and there is ANOTHER dance sequence, my god, celebrating their newfound affection and the fact that Meena is going to accompany Rahul to Rameswaram because he’s decided he will do the right thing, which, I mean, frankly he’s there anyway, so why not? Lesson number eighteen, family obligations work, when it is convenient.

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Rahul wears a leather jacket and a lungi. It’s appalling.

So he dumps the ashes, and Meena tries to ask how he feels about her and massively fails, probably because these two have all of the romance of a job interview, so she plans to run to Pune because although her father’s goons found her in Mumbai, they will NEVER find her in Pune, a city just four hours away….

But instead, Rahul takes her back, because he knows from his lifetime working in a candy store that once you start running you never stop:

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Of course she does, Rahul! Don’t you know about her work preserving Osprey habitats?

So he fights Tangaballi, fulfilling the duel he agreed to (how many?) days earlier. It’s hard to know how time has passed because both Rahul and Meena have changed outfits like ten times between then and now. Lesson eighteen! Bring a big wardrobe when you visit South India, you gotta stay in vogue!

This fight is horrible and bloody and Tangaballi throws Rahul around like a rag doll and many small businesses, from a bangle stall to an auto rickshaw, are completely destroyed in the process. Lesson nineteen! South India is a terrible place for the small business owner.

 

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But Rahul defeats Tangaballi, and therefore proves that a woman can choose her own spouse.

Good lord.

Well, at nineteen lessons, it’s our most fruitful film yet, although it’s the longest as well, so that makes sense. On the whole, the South looks like a mixed bag, and distressingly enough Calendar Girls is STILL the most feminist film of the bunch so that’s…..horrific. But, on the upside….there is no upside. Long, meandering, vaguely dissonant and clearly a mockery of South India, this movie is a train ride to insanity. So much is never explained, so little makes sense, but hey, at least that title is unforgettable.

What was it, again?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “What Bollywood Can Teach You About India: Chennai Express Edition

  1. Annie

    OMG what a train wreck of a film. Hilarious recap, though you clearly have far more stamina than I,to sit through the entire farce. Really enjoyed it, as I always enjoy your posts.

    Like

    Reply

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