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Numerous Tamilians living in Mumbai often took the Madras Mail to the state of their origin in their childhood. The train stopped at nearly every station on the railway map before finally disgorging its exhausted passengers at the central terminus. Rohit Shetty’s new movie is titled Chennai Express but it is a bit like the Madras Mail—it chugs slowly and inexorably to its foregone conclusion.

The story, credited to K. Subhash, has tremendous unrealised potential to be a zippy and zany screwball comedy. Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) is trying to duck out of his duty of immersing his recently departed grandfather’s ashes by taking a holiday in Goa. Instead, he gets embroiled in the affairs of Meena (Deepika Padukone), a Tamilian whose attempts to flee her wedding to a man of her father’s choice are foiled by her bulky and menacing relatives.

Through a series of circumstances that could have been funnier but aren’t, Rahul and Meena arrive in her Kumban village, where Meena passes off Rahul as her lover, earning the wrath of her stern gangster father (Sathyaraj). Attempted escapes and bonding sessions against a clearly Goan backdrop follow, leading to the inevitable exchange of lovelorn looks and the evolution of Rahul from wimp into hero.

There are moments of vim and wit spread over the 142-minute duration and mostly stacked in the beginning, when Shetty introduces the movie’s leitmotif of a clash of cultures between North and South. This clash turns out to be little more than a contest of differing languages and accents—the world doesn’t seem to have changed much since the days of Padosan. Meena mangles her Hindi, while her family and community members chatter away in Tamil, which is helpfully translated for the sake of Rahul and bewildered non-Tamilian viewers. The movie doesn’t have any equivalent of Anu Menon’s fictitious Lolakutty character, who entertained viewers of Channel [V] with her hilarious and perceptive witticisms about Malayaliness.

Social observation isn’t Shetty’s forte, to be sure, and is nigh impossible in a movie whose dialogue writers are the impoverished punsters Sajid-Farhad. Shetty does work hard to be true to the story setting. He packs the movie with a largely Tamilian cast, drawn from a pool of extras and television talent, although he squanders the potential of a seasoned actor like Sathyaraj. Tamil folk and film music influences can be heard on the soundtrack, while the choreography attempts to replicate the energy of song-and-dance sequences in Tamil movies. There’s even a “lungi dance" at the end to name-check Bollywood’s tribute to the reigning god of Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth, but the entire endeavour proves to be as ersatz as Padukone’s Tamil accent.

The fascination with—and accompanying exoticisation of—Tamil popular culture by a section of the Hindi movie business not just too silly to be offensive—it is proving to be an increasingly shallow exercise. Bollywood has built bridges with the Tamil and Telugu film industries in recent years, leading to several remakes, co-productions and a crossover of talent on all sides. Chennai Express is careful to maintain the healthy equation, but in the process, Shetty never lets it rip. He is content with doling out a festive season timepasser, which is the solo release for the Eid weekend and has been plastered across so many screens in the country and the world that its success is guaranteed. But since when did business smarts compensate for entertaining cinema? The inevitable journey to the bank is enlivened by Padukone’s luminosity and Khan’s enthusiastically over-the-top performance, which includes sending up his screen persona and periodically contorting his weathered face. Khan grins through the comic bits and grimaces through the romantic scenes, secure in the knowledge that he doesn’t need to try too hard to hit the jackpot. Everybody involved with this movie already has.

Chennai Express opened on Thursday.

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