If you go to see Chennai Express and feel like you've seen it before . . . it's because you have.
But I think you're supposed to feel that way. The SRK actor/film references abound, and as you probably already realized, the general arc (especially the bookends of the romance) is a direct homage to DDLJ.
As for the contrivances of the plot. . .
Rahul, A 40-year-old Mumbai man (SRK) finally leaves home when his grandfather dies. His grandmother thinks he's going to go to Rameshwara to scatter his grandfather's ashes as promised. But he plans to take a detour and go to Goa with some buddies, who finally convinced him to leave the safety of his family home and live a little. But when getting on the train to Chennai (a ploy to make his grandmother believe he is really going to Southeast India), he becomes entangled with Meena (Deepika Padukone) the runaway daughter of a South Indian don, her fathers goondas, and her "hairy and scary" (to use Rahul's words) fiance-to-be.
The rest of the film is a series of fairly entertaining romantic comedy situations (he runs away but is brought right back to the clutches of the Don, they run off together and pretend to be married, some temple rituals seal their fate, they finally decide to honor his grandfather together etc.) . . . that is until the last twenty minutes or so.
You know how in DDLJ, SRK spends most of the second half of the film trying to get on Amrish Puri's good side? He participates in all the good Indian boy rituals, makes some allies, and generally lies his face off?
Plus continually says a lot of dubious stuff like this about parents:
And then at the end you have this scene, where Raj fights off the fiance's posse:
And this (my least favorite aspect of the entire film)--The Patriarch with the Literal Iron Grip on his family:
Well, this exact scene is "revisited" at the end of Chennai Express. In technical details it is more of a remake than a homage . . . right down to the beating with large objects, the kicks, the myriad of dishooms, and the father's stupid EVERLASTING GRIP! on his daughter's wrist.
I held my breath throughout this whole last section. I wasn't worried that Rahul wouldn't get the girl. I mean, this is a mainstream comedy by Rohit Shetty! No, I wanted to know--HAD to know--if it would do something different than DDLJ. (I love that movie because of its adorable sequences and catchy songs, but also hate the undeniably awful woman-as-property dynamic.)
And what do you know, it DID do something different.
It didn't go as far in the other direction as I wanted it to, but it did try. Lordy, it tried . . . and I appreciate the effort.
A few marked departures from DDLJ:
1. This time, the hero needed the end-fight in itself, even more than the heroine did. Rahul is not Raj. Rahul is not a hero who knows what he wants, and thus, this time, the hero's journey towards hero-dom was the core of the story. Rahul is a non-starter. Rahul has never sacrificed for anything he wanted in his life. Rahul has never fought for anything or anyone. All he does is run away...even from easy things.
In contrast, Meena is running all throughout the film from dangerous and difficult things (forced marriage and the mob) and to some degree has already achieved agency that way. The film isn't really about her, unfortunately, and the story tends to do her some disservices out of neglect and disinterest. All the important events exist to push Rahul towards making strong choices, keeping his promises, and taking a sacrificial stand.
2. Raj of DDLJ never once spoke against the patriarchy, much less rebuked it to its face. But when Rahul returns to Meena's father to take a stand, he doesn't demand the daughter. Nor does he plead or try to get on the father's good side.
What he does do is immediately yell at the father/Don. He accuses the Don of basically holding all the women of the village, including his daughter, prisoner . . . 66 years after India's independence. And Rahul ain't gonna stand for it. A lot of rebuking words are said by Rahul (in front of the whole village) long before the fight ever goes down.
3. After Rahul does win the fight, he is told by both major enemies (the Don, the fiancee) that he has won the fight/won the daughter because of his bravery. I sighed. I guess it was to be expected. Yes, Rahul was brave, and one can agree that the sacrifice was important to his character arc. But I still felt that pit in my stomach saying, "This is uncomfortably like violent patriarchy again."
However, it wasn't quite as bad as I thought it might be.
Rahul doesn't assume that he has the bride upon vanquishing of his enemies. Nor does Meena assume she belongs to him automatically after he fights for her. Instead of carrying her away, Rahul asks Meena delicately, cautiously, if she loves him . . . and if she will marry him. To cap it off, if I caught the next subtitles right, Rahul actually remarks in his last bit of narration that "Love is the only shared language" and that "Love will win the bride" not the fabled "Bravery."
This is THE big difference between the two movies, I think, and showcases the albeit careful message of this particular film: that women, no matter where they are from in India, deserve choice . . . deserve independence.
Commercial products have to be diplomatic, of course, and Chennai Express is definitely a film trying to appeal to a lot of people. It tries to straddle the worlds of a shiny "modern" and colorful "rural" India. It forces Rahul to play by the Rules of the Jungle, if you will, to "rescue" the maiden. But those very rules of the jungle are portrayed as outdated and wrong and even useless in a way. After all, Meena makes it clear that she will keep running away. . . she's not going to stay and put up with a broken system. Rahul, on the other hand, rebels in his own way, deciding to challenge that broken system to the only game it knows: violence.
At the end, you are left with the feeling that the Don and the Goondas are of the past and that Meena and Rahul are the future. However flawed they may be, however much they remind us of the quintessential and barely-modern screwball couple of 1930s Hollywood . . . they are certainly not Simran and Raj. And thank goodness for that. For anyone still nursing wounds from the beloved DDLJ, Chennai Express might be a nice balm. It's not the best medicine, but it is certainly a needed response to an iconic but kind of outdated film.