(There are spoilers from the very beginning; be warned.)
Chennai Express is trying to remake DDLJ in a way that isn’t regressive in its attitude towards women and failing, in the context of a tourism advertisement for Tamil Nadu. By now I know better than to expect women to be treated like human beings in a Rohit Shetty film, but the problem with Chennai Express isn’t really in the lack of agency Meena has. The problem lies in the speeches, the sickles, and the general effort that is put into trying to make this movie seem like it is on our side when it’s so clearly not.
For the entire first half of Chennai Express, Meena’s only desire in life is to be independent, never get married, and never be controlled by a man. When she first meets Rahul, they don’t get along; she hates him as much as Simran hates Raj in DDLJ. All of a sudden, one person runs by her in all seriousness the idea that Rahul might make a good husband for her, and she completely forgets her previous desires and replaces them with wanting to be with Rahul, just as quickly as Simran changes her mind about Raj. It doesn’t appear for a second that Meena changes her mind because she falls in love with Rahul; she just thinks he would be able to protect her for the next seven lives. This decision to be with Rahul isn’t even remotely about the agency that Meena so desired for the first half of the film.
Of course, in the end she is literally won by Rahul and her father literally hands her over to her new master. This could have been just a nice reference to a horrible movie (DDLJ) were it not for Rahul’s wonderful speech to Meena’s father in which he tells him off for being so backwards and regressive and taking away the agency of all the females in the village, even the ones he says he loves and whose best interests he says to have at heart. If Rahul really meant any of this, he wouldn’t have needed to do all of this dulhania le jayenge; he would have been able to just return Meena’s love 2 hours ago during intermission and let her take herself wherever she wanted to go (which Rahul already knew was with him).
As if to rub it in even more, there are also the recurring themes of the sickle (don’t tell me no one else thought of the ending of Mirch Masala when Rahul was standing over Tangaballi with a sickle to his throat) and Shahrukh’s line, “Don’t underestimate the power of the common man.” Maybe Rohit Shetty wasn’t trying to evoke one of the most iconic feminist films to ever come out of India with this communist imagery, but if he was, it definitely doesn’t help.
Overall, disregarding my feminist complaints, Chennai Express wasn’t any worse than I expected it to be. Deepika is a better actress than she ever has been before – maybe on par with Cocktail and Om Shanti Om, but definitely better than in YJHD a few weeks ago. SRK isn’t bad, but is probably worse than he’s ever been before – trying way too hard to appeal to Salman fans while forgetting to appeal to his own fans (this was the first time I’ve ever come close to disliking SRK’s performance in a film). The film makes Tamil Nadu look like a fairytale; the cinematography looks like it is entirely CGI, and would make an effective Incredible India! advertisement since it exoticizes the hell out of South India. The first ~15 minutes of the movie are even pretty funny [for Rohit Shetty], and it was almost entertaining to try to catch all of the DDLJ (et al) references.
If it hadn’t been for the blatant hypocrisy, I might even have almost liked it.
Tamil Nadu Tourism Advert (the song’s pretty catchy, too):