Since the big trailer launch of Chennai Express there has been a lot of discussion about Rohit Shetty's back catalog - at least around my part of the Interwebs. The general consensus seems to be that all Rohit Shetty films are basically the same and Chennai Express is just more of that "same." The assumption is that because the mindless mass audience made a 100 crore hit out of Golmaal 3 (read my write-up here), that anything Shetty does that isn't the cinematic equivalent of him tripping on his shoelaces and face planting, will be a giant hit. Doubly so with Shahrukh added.
I think this does a real disservice to both Rohit Shetty's filmography and to the audiences that enjoy his films.
There are real differences in quality and content in all of Rohit Shetty's films, though, yes, car stunts are his calling card.
First of all, Rohit Shetty is not a visuals guy and the quality of the cinematography varies from film to film because of it. The vivid colors and crisp angles of Golmaal 3 and Golmaal Returns come from Nataraja Subramanian, whose work you might remember from Parineeta, Jab We Met, and Desi Boyz. But Aseem Bajaj gave a flatter, more dated looking visual palate in Golmaal: Fun Unlimited and Sunday. Dudely, who is somewhere in between, gave us Singham and Bol Bachchan. Though I haven't seen Bol Bachchan (yet), but I recently re-watched Singham for my 100 Crore Club series and found uninspiring as far as visuals go - at least in the non-fight scenes.
Music and dance are also not a Rohit Shetty strong suit and, again, quality varies depending on who he decides to work with. Vishal-Shekhar gave us a great soundtrack for Golmaal: Fun Unlimited (hands up who still listens to Rehja Re every summer!) and Pritam delivered up what is possibly the best of the Rohit Shetty soundtracks with his rocking All the Best: Fun Begins. But does anybody even remember any music from Singham other than Sukhwinder Singh's vocal in the title track?
The most inspired song picturization in any Rohit Shetty film is the delightful "Loot Liya" from Sunday, courtesy Ganesh Acharya. It's worth watching again, just for that long single shot as the dancers revolve around the camera. As well as for Arshad Warsi doing what he does best.
I wonder if Irrfan No Last Name includes Sunday on his Hollywood show reel...
Rohit Shetty's scripts are also all over the place. Some meander from scene to scene, never landing anywhere while others are more targeted. He is tone deaf to narrative, as well as song placement and romance. There is no single theme he works with and no overarching ideology beyond Car Stunts Rock.
All of these things make a difference to the quality of the film. You can have a great script and a great cast but if the film looks dull and has bad songs, then it's not going to be a great film. Flip it around and a great soundtrack and sharp visuals can make a dull script and tedious cast watchable. There are films in Rohit Shetty's filmography that fit both of these categories.
But even with all that variability in quality, I do generally enjoy Rohit Shetty's films for two important reasons - comic timing and women. Shetty has a fantastic sense of comic timing and an appreciation of strong heroines. He has made films where the heroine is a hero, basically (Ayesha Takia in Sunday and Bebo in Golmaal 3). He always has at least one "older" lady like Archana Puran Singh, Ratna Pathak, Ashwini Khalsekar, and Sonali Kulkarni... and the heroines he works with are generally known for their spunk and humor. Asin, Kajal Agarwal, Rimi Sen, Ayeha Takia, and my beloved Kareena Kapoor. Sure, there are a few dead-weight models here and there in secondary roles but I can't imagine Rohit Shetty making a film with wilting flower in the lead. When a Rohit Shetty hero gets uppity, a Rohit Shetty heroine is apt to smack him. Rimi Sen gets the last laugh in Gomaal: Fun Unlimited; Kareena Kapoor is the brains behind the schemes in Golmaal 3; Kajal Agarwal is the one who tames the Singham in Singham; and I'd be very surprised if Asin didn't have the upper hand through 99% of Bol Bachchan. If Deepika Padukone is looking lively in the Chennai Express trailer, that's not a coincidence.
Comic timing is another strong point of Shetty's. For all that he doesn't seem to care much about cinematography, Rohit Shetty can set up a visual sight gag like nobody's business and makes fantastic use of sound design. He is responsible for the funniest, dialogue-free 2:45 seconds that I've ever seen:
Perhaps what angers (or frustrates) non-Rohit Shetty fans about Rohit Shetty films is that they are patently not about either story or dialogue. He is not a writer's director and many, if not most, of the critics judging him (professional and otherwise) are writers. A Rohit Shetty film is not a cohesive whole as much as it is a series of scenes strung together with some car stunts thrown in. Either you enjoy the absurdity of making a film with two characters called Laxman, engaged in a meta-narrative battle over who is the "real" replacement for the Laxman from the first film, or you're busy wondering when Robert McKee's next workshop is.
If we can return to Chennai Express for a moment, although it clearly has a) a strong heroine and b) car stunts, I'm afraid it doesn't look much like a Rohit Shetty film to me at all. The casting doesn't seem to include any Rohit Shetty regulars like Murli Sharma or Mukesh Tiwari or Ashwini Khalsekar... and was apparently done by a "Hindie" guy who also did films like Trishna and Rockstar. If the Internet can be believed, it's also being jointly produced by the corporate operators over at UTV and Shahrukh's own Red Chilies. Now, this may be a Rohit Shetty film in name but the content will be all courtesy Siddharth Roy Kapur and Shahrukh Khan. If what you are looking for is Shahrukh film put together in Shetty's loose style with terrible songs and some car stunts, then Chennai Express is the film for you. Because that's what a Rohit Shetty film always is. He's not an idea man but a craftsman.
For all of Ajay Devgn's faults, I happen to enjoy his earnest outlook on life as filtered through Rohit Shetty's tilted lens. They make a good pair. What raw ingredients Shahrukh can bring to Rohit Shetty's kitchen remains to be seen but I, for one, am not too optimistic. Shahrukh is already on thin ice after Jab Tak Hai Jaan... will his fans follow him to the "mindless entertainer" genre? Will fans of all those "mindless" Akshay and Ajay starrers really want to see Shahrukh doing his Raj/Rahul talking-shalking act? And does anybody want to see South Indians being "othered" for two and a half hours?
I suppose we'll all find out this Eid.