Chennai Express proves SRK is a better marketer than an actor

Shah Rukh Khan conquered southern Indian audiences by invoking their greatest passion: Rajnikanth.

Shah Rukh Khan in Chennai Express. UTV Motion PIctures
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Shah Rukh Khan isn’t only Bollywood’s biggest star. He’s also the industry’s shrewdest businessman.

His film Chennai Express, which came out on August 8, proves this. In just two weeks, the action comedy has made 2 billion rupees (Dh116 million), beating the record set by Three Idiots (2009), a far superior film starring excellent actors, among them Aamir Khan and Boman Irani.

Chennai Express, directed by Rohit Shetty (known for movies that are mindless capers) and made in collaboration with SRK’s Red Chillies Entertainment,  was aggressively distributed – it was shown on more than 3,800 screens across India. In one fell swoop, SRK managed to do what most Hindi film actors have not: conquer the southern Indian audience, practically an impossible feat because they don’t speak a word of Hindi.

A little background for those who do not already know this: India has no national language but two “official” languages: Hindi and English.

There were several instances when Hindi was proposed as the national language but the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu protested vociferously and the idea was abandoned. India’s language issue is so divisive that even Bollywood, seen as an all-pervading force, has had to stay content ruling northern and western territories.

But SRK broke through, and he did it by invoking southern India’s greatest passion: Rajnikanth.

Rajni, as he is affectionately known, is Tamil Nadu’s longest-reigning superstar. He made it big in the 1970s and is still known for his patent death- and gravity-defying moves, most notably fighting armed goons in mid-air while flipping cigarettes between his lips. Now 62, Rajni still plays invincible superheroes. He is, after all, India’s answer to Chuck Norris. His fans worship him. Even temples have been built in his name.

With Chennai Express, SRK indulged in a little sycophancy of his own, thanking Rajni at the beginning of the film and then, at the end, dancing to a song that featured gigantic cutouts of the southern Indian super-star to lyrics interspersed with the word “thalaiva”, Tamil for “leader”.

SRK, the entertainer that he is, also ventured a few Tamil dialogues. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed; even in cinemas in the UAE, southern Indian cinemagoers whistled and laughed through the movie, staying right until the last frame of the Thalaiva song when SRK bows to an image of Rajni before walking off the set.

So there you have it: Chennai Express, a train wreck of a film if we’ve ever seen one, is India’s highest-grossing movie of all time. SRK, who topped the Forbes India 2013 list of most powerful celebrities, has proved it again: he has marvellous business acumen.

If only he had the acting chops to match.

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