Feminist Bollywood: Chennai Express

Education, desire, and intelligence don’t matter. Violence does.

Chennai Express, which saw its world premiere on August 9, 2013, is a throwback to the romantic dramas that made Shahrukh Khan a superstar. This isn’t a bad thing, as those were the sorts of movies I first watched when discovering Bollywood. The movie Chennai Express most closely resembles Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995; available on Netflix Instant), which has been playing in theaters for more than 900 weeks. Shahrukh Khan was a star before Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), but it helped him earn the title “King of Romance.” I was not surprised by the superficial similarities, but I was surprised by the almost stagnant gender roles.

Both movies feature people meeting on a train. After initially disliking each other, they fall in love. The problem: the woman is engaged to a not very-nice-guy and her father won’t let her out of the engagement. In the end, the man prevails, in part thanks to violence.

This is actually a fairly common plot point in Bollywood movies: public transportation is an easy place to meet people of the opposite sex and perhaps speak a little more freely than otherwise. The first half of Chennai Express is very clever, and in fact laugh-out-loud funny, in how it uses this trope.

Poster for 2013 Bollywood film Chennai Express, featuring Deepika Padukone and Shahrukh Khan
Poster for 2013 Bollywood film Chennai Express, featuring Deepika Padukone and Shahrukh Khan. From Wikipedia

The opening credits cheered my heart. Earlier this year, Shahrukh Khan announced that he would give his female co-stars top billing in their movies, starting with this one. He explained, “I would request others also to do it. I know this will not make a huge difference but may be [sic] a change in mindset will happen… I am looking to make a point.” It was certainly exciting, then, to see Deepika Padukone’s name first in the opening credits.

To the plot: Rahul (Shahrukh Khan) is all set to take a trip to Goa when his grandmother asks him to take Grandfather’s ashes to southern India. Rahul agrees, but then tries to trick Grandma by getting on a train to southern India, the Chennai Express, only to disembark later and meet up with his friends to continue on to Goa.

Unfortunately, Rahul forgets the ashes on the train. He returns to the car to retrieve them. As the train starts moving, and the opportunity to leave slips by, he sees a beautiful young woman running towards the train. He helps her on, and then helps the three men who are following her. Now it’s too late, and he’s stuck on the train.

The young woman, Meena (Deepika Padukone), is trying to escape an arranged marriage; the men are her cousins, forcing her back home. The men do not speak Hindi, and Rahul does not speak Tamil, but Meena speaks both. She asks Rahul to help her escape; to avoid suspicion, she sings her plans, and Rahul sings back.

To accomplish this, the two use famous tunes from other Bollywood movies (as far as I could tell, all were movies Shahrukh Khan had starred in). Funny on its own, but even funnier if you know the songs/movies in question. A clever wink to the audience.

Rahul is unable to help her, and unable to contact his friends when his phone is thrown out a window. Once they arrive in Meena’s village, she claims Rahul is who she wants to marry. But her father will only allow her out of her engagement if Rahul will fight her current fiancé. Rahul flees in terror.

Eventually, Rahul and Meena meet up again, escape again, and then return to her village for one last showdown. Rahul decides to fight her fiancé after all and, of course, wins.

Throughout the second half of the movie, I kept waiting for a twist. Meena is beautiful, cultured, and educated; she speaks at least four languages. She is clever, and strongly desires to make her own choices. She plans to head north and stay with a friend; Rahul invites her to stay in Mumbai with him and she accepts. She is willing to give up on her family and her past if it means freedom. However, Rahul ultimately ignores her wish and returns to the village to fight.

Already angry that all of the men in her life ignored her wishes, I kept waiting for another twist. Perhaps Meena would join in the fighting (she looks rather dynamic in that poster, no?). Maybe she’d use her beautiful words to finally talk sense into her father or fiancé. But no. The ending rests on two men violently duking it out. Meena does try to intervene, but is prevented by her father.

Indeed, in some ways this movie is actually a step back compared to DDLJ. While that movie’s climax involves a huge fight, the hero and heroine are finally able to be together because her father recognizes how much the hero loves her. In this movie, there is no such revelation: Dad relents because Rahul met the terms. He bested the other guy, he wins.

This is not a situation unique to Bollywood movies, though it can be harder to recognize in one’s own culture. I re-watched one of my favorite movies the other day: Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Ultimately, how does the guy get the girl? Violence.

The violence, in a way, does not bother me as much as the fact that everyone (well, all of the men) constantly ignore what Meena wants. Her father is rich and powerful, the head of the local mob. She takes some pride in this, but is willing to give up her status, her lifestyle, etc, so that she can live on her own terms. Her father ignores these wishes, as do her fiance, her cousins, and even Rahul.

And how many movies feature that, a man ignoring a woman, as a plot point? I love Bridesmaids, and I love Officer Rhodes, but I’m always creeped out when he presents Annie with the ingredients for making cupcakes after she has explicitly told him she’s not interested in baking again. Or creeped out by the way Erin is treated in The Office, as I wrote about recently. And I saw The Great Gatsby twice in the theater (and I’ve read it multiple times), so let’s not even get started on Daisy, eh?

So this is not a problem only in Bollywood movies or only in Shahrukh Khan movies. Or only in Hollywood movies or TV shows.

Shahrukh Khan said, “I have worked with Hemaji, Madhuri [Dixit], Sridevi, Juhi [Chawla], Deepika [Padukone], Anushka [Sharma] and several others. They all work hard and are better. Also be it women directors, producers, choreographers and other women in my field I am inspired by all.” He is paying attention to his coworkers. He is aware of what they face, at least a little bit. He is starting to listen.

Now let’s all start listening to what women actually want.

One reply on “Feminist Bollywood: Chennai Express”

Urgh. More and more am I getting over violence as just another plot point. My knowledge of Bollywood movies is nil, but pretty sure it doesn’t need fights, abuse or assault to further a plot. They can make up songs about everything, surely there’s enough creativity to dodge the fight.
Or let the women get in on it.

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