Chalo Dilli is a road trip comedy in which a mismatched pair of strangers are forced to rely upon each other to reach their destination. It’s basically Planes, Trains and Automobiles, only with Steve Martin’s uptight character played by a woman.
That woman is Lara Dutta, who also produced the movie. Dutta plays Mihika, a picky investment banking executive used to getting things her way. She heads to the airport in Mumbai wearing a tight skirt and high heels that look as uncomfortable for air travel as they will be for her inevitable trek through the hinterlands.
Mihika’s journey is disrupted by Muna (Vinay Pathak), a crude cloth merchant with a chivalrous streak. His incessant yammering on the plane prompts Mihika to put on headphones, causing her to miss the announcement that the flight to Delhi has been diverted to Jaipur.
What should be a six-hour drive back to Delhi turns into an overnight adventure for Mihika and Muna, who assumes the role of chauffeur when the driver Mihika has hired falls asleep. The car breaks down, and the odd couple spend many hours together making their way to Delhi any way they can.
This premise should work particularly well in India, with its stark contract between urban and rural environments. The contrast sets up plenty of fish-out-of-water scenarios for city-bred Mihika, who starts the movie disgusted at the thought of flying on a “budget” airline instead of in first class.
But the movie never takes full advantage of its opportunities for comedy. None of the situations Mihika and Muna find themselves in are especially unusual or outrageous. The people they encounter are generally normal and helpful. It makes for a boring trip.
Mihika does get to wake up to a beautiful sunrise in the country and meet friendly locals, which is supposed to open her eyes to Muna’s somewhat odd life wisdom: Don’t sweat the small stuff, because there’s probably something much more serious in your life that you should be worried about.
As much as Chalo Dilli fancies itself an uplifting film, it isn’t really. Manu’s happy-go-lucky demeanor masks an inner pain that manifests itself in cruel jokes at his wife’s expense. The final scene between Mihika and Manu is uncomfortable to watch.
Rather than ending there, the movie tacks on an epilogue montage voiced-over by Mihika detailing the ways the lives of the villagers she and Muna encountered were improved by the experience. The movie gives the contradictory message that the simple life is beautiful, but not so perfect that it can’t be improved by a little attention from some city dwellers.
Chalo Dilli also takes a conflicted view of gender equality. Mihika and Muna argue after he wonders why so many men would be willing to work for her. She accuses him of believing that women should stay home and have babies. So what does Mihika decide to do in the epilogue? Stay home and have babies.
If Mihika had expressed career or life dissatisfaction earlier in the movie, perhaps the choice would’ve made sense. But it’s quite a leap from Mihika making a small gesture, such as delaying a business trip in order to attend a party, to her chucking her whole career to have kids. Axe the unnecessary epilogue and this mixed message isn’t an issue.