When Shah Rukh Khan stars in a film, India’s cinema seats fill. His latest film Chennai Express, directed by Rohit Setty and costarring Deepika Padukone, is no exception.
Since hitting theaters on August 9, King Khan’s latest offering raked in $25 million in its first five days, already surpassing and almost doubling the film’s budget of $13 million and setting numerous Bollywood box office records. Even with a hike in ticket prices for those wishing to see the film on its opening weekend, cinemas were packed out in Mumbai, where occupancy in Chitra Cinema reached 95 percent during the preview screening on August 8, before spiking to and remaining at 100 percent from that Friday through Sunday. Next door in Pakistan the film has also shattered records.
Indeed, the film plans to go global, with screenings taking place from the U.K. and the U.S. to Australia and the Middle East. Even the Hindi communities of Peru, Morocco, Israel, and a handful of European countries will have a chance to see it. Meanwhile, Khan and Shetty already plan to rejoin forces.
Since its official opening of August 9, “It's been an unprecedented and overwhelming response…it is being accepted and loved by the audiences,” said Gaurav Verma, director of India Theatrical Distribution. “This is the only reason why it has successfully created new benchmark at the box-office and will continue to do so.”
This may be positive for ticket sales, but Verma’s comment alludes to a flaw in Bollywood’s model. In the West, films like Independence Day, Titanic and Avatar have struck a reasonable balance between box office success and critical approval (at least avoiding a bashing across the board). But in India, there seems to be an especially strong inverse relationship between the movies audiences like and the ones critics praise.
Film journalist Ajay Brahmatmaj wrote: “I believe there is some disconnect between the critics and audience. While analysis a movie, we base our parameters on the plot-line alone, however, cinema is an experience and audience may not be looking as much for the story as for an entertaining experience.”
Chennai Express is a textbook case.
“It’s a big, fat bore. A bloated vanity project for an actor capable of so much more,” reads the headline of a scathing review by critic Rajeev Masand for IBN Live. “Some films are hard to make sense of. Others are just nonsense,” Masand continues. “Chennai Express, directed by Rohit Shetty, ticks both boxes…(It’s) a stew of puerile humor, lazy stereotypes, and way-over-the-top acting from a star who appears to be trying too hard.”
The film tells the story of 40-year-old Rahul, a sheltered man from Mumbai tasked with transporting his deceased grandfather’s ashes to the holy city of Rameshwaram in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. But Rahul has other plans. Taking a detour to Goa to party with good-for-nothing friends, he takes the Chennai Express in an attempt to deceive his grandmother.
Fate, however, gives him more than he bargained for when he helps a mafia don’s daughter named Meena (played by Padukone) onto a moving train, unwittingly assisting her in an attempted escape from a planned marriage to a fellow crime boss. Along with Meena, Rahul soon meets four swarthy hoodlums wielding scythes and guns sent by her father to bring her back. Rahul (Khan) is summarily kidnapped and becomes properly embroiled in this mess. The rest of the film involves a seemingly endless series of zany antics and forced tender moments shared by the accidental couple.
“I like the whole idea of bringing a love and a comedy story together, which has a situation in which we do not understand each other and our love prospers and we find out that love conquers everything,” Khan said of the storyline.
Writing for Variety, Ronnie Scheib wasn’t so convinced: “Rahul’s moral redemption under the influence of love tends to dominate the film, draining much of the comic enjoyment from characters who are either overdrawn (in the case of Rahul) and underdrawn (in the case of Meena).”
Who is responsible for this trend? It’s easy to blame the audience, citing supply and demand. But could this trend actually stem from the laziness of directors? In an article titled, “Chennai Express: Has the interpretation of comedy changed?”, Divya Pal points to the overwhelming sway held by the box office in India.
“Viewers will lap up what is offered to them. If they only have two options to choose from, what will they do? But if they have about 10 options, they can at least consider what to watch,” Pal writes. “Unfortunately, in Bollywood it is only about how much the movie makes in its opening week. The Box Office number has become the sole determinant factor, which is why everything else takes a back seat.”