Here’s and interesting column written to us by a student of Asian College of Journalism, Chennai – Justin Rao. As part of his journalism course, he went to cover rural reporting in a small village in Andhra Pradesh. What Justin found there was a lot more than he had imagined. The village has an interesting thing about movies, and in particular about Bollywood. This is an article about how Chennai Express had an impact on this small village. Read now:

It was in December 2014 when Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayege, India’s longest running film, completed a historic 1000-week run. Articles were written on how the movie had shaped an entire generation; discussions were held on the relevance of the movie; chat shows were aired with the cast who shared the process of making the film; a book was published; its exclusive merchandise were put on sale; and the movie was played again at cinema halls. The entire nation was gripped. It was a mammoth event to celebrate a memorable film.

However, a month later and approximately 1000-km away from Mumbai, at Thullur village in Andhra Pradesh, nobody I met knew DDLJ. But they, all of them I asked, knew very well about one film- Chennai Express.

Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan in a still from movie 'Chennai Express'
Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan in a still from movie ‘Chennai Express’

Thullur village, some 25-km from Vijayawada, comes under Guntur district. It has just one hospital, no CD parlours, and not a single cinema hall. It used to have two cinema halls but they got shut because of poor response and often delayed release of the film. No Hindi film, however, was released here. In fact, the nearest theatre to catch a Hindi film is in Guntur city, nearly 28 kms away, at a multiplex called ‘Hollywood Bollywood.’ The other option is Vijayawada and the nearest place in Maharashtra, where Hindi is spoken in Balharshah, which is more than 500-km away.

There is little – almost negligible – penetration of Hindi films or songs. But still, for a village with no theatres, the people know a lot about movies.

I visited KVR ZPP Government High School and hostel in Thullur, and asked the children, aged 8-15, the last Hindi film they had seen. All of them, in unison replied Chennai Express. For many, it was also the only Hindi film they had ever seen.

It were not just the children – even though they were the larger chunk of the Chennai Express loving people I met – but also youngsters. During one of my routine trip from one village to another (where I was sent to report about the regions development as a journalism student), I met a 22-year old engineering student, Jeeva. He was playing a Telugu song on his cell phone, and we soon started talking about regional politics, farming, Telugu movies, and Bollywood. I asked him if he had any Hindi songs in his phone; he nodded and said he had just one. He paused the song, scrolled through the playlists and played— Lungi Dance.

Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone in a still from movie 'Chennai Express'
Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone in a still from movie ‘Chennai Express’

Curious with the song selection, I asked if he knew the meaning of the song. He giggled and replied, no. He just loved the song, for all the beats and the rhythm and the groove. He knew Amitabh Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. He confessed that although he didn’t understand Hindi, he had seen a couple of Hindi movies – Dhoom 2, Krrish 3 and, Chennai Express. All of which he liked, but Chennai Express he “enjoyed” the most.

But to my complete surprise, he had never seen or even heard about DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, or Kal Ho Na Ho– the movies which made SRK what he is today. And then it became a pattern. I went to the government school and very few children knew about these movies. Most of them knew SRK as the man who sells Dish TV (a boy said he first saw SRK not in a film but in a Dish TV commercial!), or as the man who made Ra.One (another boy said he watched it because he loved games) and then Chennai Express, which all of the respondents said, they loved.

They didn't know how to speak Hindi, but knew Shah Rukh Khan. 
They didn’t know how to speak Hindi, but knew Shah Rukh Khan.

It is then, very interesting as to how Chennai Express, the movie which got underwhelming reviews, disappointed loyal SRK fans (they were shocked to see him do slap stick comedy), evoked nasty articles (how it was the ‘beginning of the end’ of Shah Rukh Khan) and divided audiences reaction, managed to bowl over people in a small village.

There could be many reasons. Unlike SRK’s earlier movies which were mostly shot abroad and were about urban people, Chennai Express was set in South India and was about South Indians. Ra.One saw SRK playing a South Indian but it was more embarrassing than celebrating.

Chennai Express got it right. It never offended or ridiculed the South Indian culture. Even though Deepika’s accent was questioned, it was passed because it was never offensive, it stayed harmless and appeared cute (unlike SRK’s act in Ra.One where he was shown eating noodles mixed with curd with hands).

The south connect must’ve ticked, more so because of the Rajnikant “tribute” song, Lungi Dance. Perhaps the film wouldn’t have got the reach it did had it not been for Lungi Dance, which sort of became the reason why people watched it and now recall the movie for the same. So much, that when I visited the children’s hostel, the kids danced with me on this song!

Kids dancing on Lungi Dance. One kid got so excited he changed and came back wearing a lungi!
Kids dancing on Lungi Dance. One kid got so excited he changed and came back wearing a lungi!

Interestingly, the reason why people were disappointed with SRK is the same why people had liked him in the movie- preconceived notion. Those who have been following SRK since Darr and Baazigar, and lapped up his romantic hero turn with DDLJ, could not fathom how the actor could bow to the pressure of “massy over the top” movies. These are the ones who saw him from DDLJ, to Chak De India, from Om Shanti Om to Swades and were disappointed with the actor’s turn to the mindless entertainer, even comparing him with Salman Khan. They could not see the romantic hero do silly stuff.

But, the people in Thullur who liked Chennai Express, had no such notion. They hadn’t seen his romantic movies; they didn’t care how he was during Darr and Baazigar. They viewed Chennai Express as a stand-alone movie of an actor with no image. They were not watching SRK keeping his image in mind. They were just watching him as he was, struggling to understand the language and doing funny antics.

Through movies like these, it seems, Shah Rukh Khan is reaching to an audience which he earlier didn’t cater to. Entering territories which are still not in sync with his brand of movies. Which are still unfazed by his image and some still clueless of how he looks (Once, a student asked me my name. I said Shah Rukh Khan. He looked at me totally surprised and said “OH! I have heard a lot about you!”).

On the last day of my stay in Thullur, some of the children came upto me and asked for my number. I happily obliged. Two days later, at around 8 in the morning I woke up to a phone call. I answered it. It was from Thullur children’s hostel.

“Hello?” I said. “Ha Shah Rukh Khan? Lungi Dance Lungi Dance this side!” said a voice.

I broke into laughter. Between a Hindi speaking boy and Telugu speaking children, Chennai Express became more than a movie- it became our common language.

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