Trying to make sense of it all. I’d warn for spoilers, but I’m not sure you could spoil this film.
1. Deepika Padukone is not human. Okay, not entirely human. If the film is to be assumed to be set in the human world, she’s existing on a slightly different plane to everybody else.
I don’t mean this as an insult. Pretty much every review of the film I’ve seen has talked about how surprisingly good (“surprisingly”, because what she has to work with is a pretty terrible plot and a ludicrous accent) Padukone is–far superior to pretty much anyone else in the movie. One piece of evidence that she isn’t quite of this (the film’s) world comes shortly after the interval. SRK’s Rahul and Padukone’s Meena have convinced the innocent and morally pure inhabitants of a village that they are legally married and on the run from the bride’s angry family, and they are offered a room to stay in with only one bed. Comedy ensues, as the conservative southern girl does not want to share a bed with this man she barely knows, and man she barely knows asks if she thinks she’ll be unable to keep her hands off him. It turns out Meena actually has a pretty solid reason for not wanting him in bed with her — at night she is possessed by some sort of spirit that manifests itself in making her sway and mutter at him not to come near her and kick him out of bed. This sudden intrusion of the supernatural into the film’s world is never addressed, beyond a quick joke towards the end about a future in which she keeps kicking him out of bed.
But this moment is enough to suggest that there’s something not quite normal about Meena. In an earlier scene, Rahul suggested that Meena was some sort of harbinger of doom–that since her arrival into his life everything had gone horribly wrong. While this is probably unfair to her (his character is so irritating as to deserve all that happens to him) perhaps it’s another indicator that she exists on some level outside the film itself. In a later scene, an old woman tells the couple they’re destined to be together for seven lifetimes. Meena looks miserable. Perhaps this is because she’s doomed to be aware of all seven, perhaps it’s because she knows she’s going to spend a lifetime shoving a man old enough to be her dad out of bed every night. Meena spends most of her exchanges with Rahul gazing at him with a sort of fascinated disgust that makes perfect sense in context–but it works just as well if you see her as a sort of superhuman, semi-outside-the-text figure. We who are also outside the text can easily understand her pain.
2. Chennai Express is a film about the breakdown of language. One of the things that interested me about the film were the ways in which Rahul’s lack of knowledge of Tamil played a role. Rahul is our narrator, and much of the film is shown to us from his perspective. We’re not shown subtitles when those around him are speaking Tamil; we’re expected to share his incomprehension and hope that Meena (who he calls “miss subtitle”) will translate. At one point the film addresses this directly–yes, yes, Rahul tells us, he knows we don’t have a clue what’s going on either.
I’m not a Tamil speaker, but I’ve grown up around people who are and I generally understand what they’re saying. If this was made somewhat difficult by Rahul’s voiceovers occasionally cutting over what the other characters were saying, it was interesting to know that I was, in this very basic way, not a part of the film’s intended audience. Except, of course, that it is releasing in Tamil Nadu as well, and people are presumably going to watch it.
There’s an utterly bizarre scene about midway through the movie where Rahul is walking alone in a forest and comes across a dwarf sharpening a knife. This man, it turns out, speaks neither English nor Hindi, but communicates in a series of clicking noises. He and Rahul bond over their mutual inability to understand one another (or Rahul does- we’re not told what the other man thinks they’re bonding over), and how they’re both too old to have to learn new languages. Then they part.
On the surface there’s no point to this scene (a friend who was watching the film with me wondered if this was some sort of Tom Bombadil-ish digression), and that’s without even getting into the “a little person! How hilarious!” undertone that is apparently supposed to pass for comedy. The only possible function I can see in it is as a reference point for the end of the film, when Rahul’s voiceover reminds us that India has many languages, but that love has only one (the second half of this assertion is patently untrue). We’re all doomed to keep misunderstanding one another, to understand only a small fraction of what the rest of our countrymen are saying. Communication is an impossible mess, we’ll keep hearing “teri ma ki” when people are asking us “Tamil terima?” (or “monkey” when people are saying “teri ma ki”, as Harbhajan Singh’s defenders would claim). What “bakwaas” dictionary is Rahul operating from, asks Meena early on in the film. Indeed, what bakwaas dictionaries are we all relying on?
3. The patriarchy will reassert itself over and over and over and over and … Meena is running away from her family (by trying to catch a train that will take her to her ancestral village?) because her father is trying to force her to marry another man. Meena doesn’t want to marry, she explains to Rahul, before using him as a decoy fiance so that she can escape once more. Rahul having been introduced as Meena’s (supposed) preferred partner, he’s still expected to fight her previous fiancee to prove his own worth.
In many ways, Rahul is the opposite of the sort of man Meena has had chosen for her. He’s physically smaller and weaker than Tangaballi (though who isn’t?), from the other side of the country, and of a lower social class–for some reason she cannot get over the fact that he is a halwai. In embracing her fake (and later real) relationship with him she’s choosing a different set of values to the ones she’s expected to embrace, and a relationship in which she has at least as much power as him–though at present this power is derived from her facility with the local language and his fundemantal hopelessness more than anything else.
But first religion, then patriarchy (and the two are strongly intertwined here) pop up as obstacles. Rahul “proves” himself to have unexpected quantities of upper body strength when he carries her up 3000 steps to a temple to humour the innocent villagers among whom they have fallen; and Meena immediately begins to gaze dreamily at his sweaty face. When the two of them escape Tangaballi (again) by the sensible act of running away, she begins to hint heavily that he should marry her, sulking when he refuses to take the bait. For all that Meena has claimed she doesn’t want to marry, she doesn’t seem to have given thought to what she does want to do. Her options appear to be to lurk in a friend’s house in Pune, lurk in Rahul’s house in Bombay, or go home and marry. In the universe of the film, women with careers don’t seem to exist.
All this is moot though, since Rahul decides without Meena’s permission to take her back to her village. Meena has tried to escape the parameters within which her family and society seem to demand that she live her life; Rahul autonomously decides that no, he must win her freedom within those parameters, and face her father on his (her father’s) terms, not hers. An embarrassing speech (by Rahul, who has apparently transcended the language barrier and therefore rendered Meena unnecessary to this discussion about her rights) on the position of women in an India that has been independent for 66 years, leaves the listeners … unmoved. The patriarchy doesn’t care about your fine speeches. The patriarchy will only accept Rahul as Meena’s suitor (and Rahul has already accepted for Meena that the patriarchy’s acceptance is required) when he has proved himself on its terms–by beating the shit out of every man present. Rahul wins, he and Tangaballi shake hands; Meena has run away from the guy who wins women by beating up other men into the arms of the guy who … wins women by beating up other men. Her radical choice has been entirely co-opted into the system she wanted to escape. It’s so sweet how women think they might get some control over their lives.
I suppose there’s also 4. Arvind Kejriwal’s Epic Road Trip Across South India, 5. LOL, Madrasis, and innumerable others, but I refuse to do more. I watched Chennai Express with a devoted SRK fangirl and after a point even she couldn’t take it anymore. It’s utterly dire.
(Beth Watkins is far, far nicer to the film here)