With an encouraging yet desperate nod toward the two biggest movie-consuming populations on earth, Warners is releasing the Bollywood musical/martial-arts adventure “Chandni Chowk to China” — a film much more of India than about it. As with many a Bollywood epic, you can bring the kids, your lunch, your cell phone, your unfiled taxes. There’s so much here, and in such heaping, lengthy portions, you could probably weave a sari before the end credits. After letting “Slumdog Millionaire” slip through their fingers, WB execs may be hoping for crossover biz on this one. That seems unlikely, but fans will flock.
Shot in India, Thailand and China, the almost unpronounceable “Chandni Chowk to China” (which apparently marks the first time Beijing has allowed a fight scene to be shot on the Great Wall) features the quasi-hysterical Akshay Kumar as Sidhu, a simple cook from the Delhi neighborhood of Chandni Chowk. Some besieged Chinese peasants believe Sidhu to be the reincarnation of Liu Sheng, “China’s greatest warrior.”
The villagers want to bring Sidhu back home so he can defeat the dreaded Hojo (martial-arts star Gordon Liu), a landlocked pirate who is oppressing the countryside. But getting the unlikely hero out of the kitchen and away from his perpetually disappointed Dada (Mithun Chakraborty) requires subterfuge; Sidhu’s misconceptions about where he’s going and why — and whom he’s going to meet — add to the considerable wealth of lowbrow comedy.
And lowbrow it is, but this is Bollywood, wherein everyone including Indians are mocked, derided, beaten, made to dance (usually in the rain) and where plotlines have more intersecting points than the U.S. highway system. No one is more ridiculous than Kumar, who plays Sidhu as a cross between Jerry Lewis and Ali G, all while trying to stay abreast of the narrative.
His counterpart/counterpoint is the beautiful Deepika Padukone, who does double duty as Sakhi, a spokesmodel for “Dance Magic G9” (a device whose comic potential will be used and abused on Sidhu) and as Hojo’s lovely/lethal confederate, Meow Meow, who might have wandered off the set of “Kill Bill.” The idea that Sakhi and Meow Meow were separated at birth is easy enough to swallow, but not the fact that the two Indian sisters were the children of Chinese parents — including a derelict named Chiang (Roger Yuan) who used to be a crack police officer and martial-arts master until his family was destroyed by the evil Hojo.
If “Chandni Chowk to China” were a person, it would need Valium. As directed by Nikhil Advani (“Salaam-e-Ishq”), everything is fast and furious, hilarious, hysterical and frantic. Some of the sequences, and d.p. Himman Dhamija’s imagery are quite beautiful and, in the case of the dance numbers featuring Padukone, stunning. But it’s the fight scenes choreographed by Huan-Chiu Ku (martial-arts director on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Kill Bill’ and a stunt coordinator on Jet Li’s “Black Mask”) that truly take off; Kumar’s homage to Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master” films is a real tickle.
And then there’s the potato. In the early days of the film, Sidhu is looking for a way to make money that doesn’t require hard work, and finds a potato bearing the likeness of the Hindu divinity Lord Ganesh. People flock to see it. Sidhu then carries it around throughout the entire movie. Why? One can only imagine that in trying to make a comic-tragic-dramatic dance film that would appeal to musical fans, martial-arts fans and fans of beautiful women throughout India, China, and America, the filmmakers didn’t want to leave anyone out. Including farmers.
Production values are topnotch.