Chandni Chowk to China (2009)


As a woman-- over the years, I've often seen the raising of many an eyebrow when I confess my love of martial arts films. On the other hand, my devotion to musicals others can understand-- there are gender double-standards it seems even for film geeks. Likewise, my passion for old silent comedies starring Charlie Chaplin seemed perfectly natural given my profession but the idea of a rather feminine girl sitting down and watching Jet Li or Jackie Chan roundhouse kick their way to victory always seemed as foreign to most as the films that come out of India's Bollywood.

However, to me, there was always something musical about martial arts films-- choreography that worked with a dancer-like precision, blending comedic elements of the old silent masters with strict attention to tempo, timing, rhythm, and-- above all-- always making sure viewers had the same contact high of sheer joy that we had watching kung fu as we had watching Astaire or Kelly.

It only seemed like it'd be a matter of time before the two genres blended but I must admit to have been equally baffled when I heard that it was the product of the world's largest filmmaking center (outside Hollywood, that is)-- India's Bollywood that had decided to craft a full blown Bollywood kung fu movie.

Of course, purists remained skeptical that the same industry that gave us the excellent three hour plus Best Foreign Film Nominee Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (a.k.a. an epic and stunningly engrossing musical film about a cricket match) would be the best choice to serve up what screenwriter Shridhar Raghavan called "Kung Fu curry."

Still, the inclusion of legendary Shaw Brothers master Gordon Liu (known to this generation mostly for his work in Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2), veteran martial arts star Roger Yuan (Bulletproof Monk, Batman Begins, Lethal Weapon 4, Shanghai Noon), and the incredible stunt director Huen Chiu Ku (Fist of Legend, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, Kill Bill, The Forbidden Kingdom etc.) instantly gave Warner Brothers Studio's Chadni Chok to China a much needed boost of Hong Kong street-fighting cred.

Slated to be as Michelle Nichols of Reuters wrote "the largest Bollywood release in North America," there is a lot riding on the film high-kicking into action on 125 screens in both Canada and the United States today along with a major opening in India.

As Warner's "first Indian production," the film's director Nikhil Advani articulates the challenge best telling Reuters that, "if this one succeeds, even if it marginally succeeds... I think there will be a wave of more Bollywood films."

Also set for release in thirty additional countries, time will tell whether fans of both genres will embrace the hybrid along with audiences who typically avoid subtitles to see if they'll turn out in support of a Bollywood version of martial arts, offering broad humor, elaborate sets and state of the art musical sequences featuring a sea of extras.

Boasting a remarkably catchy Indo-Chinese fusion score inspired by the sounds of both countries from Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy including the film's addictive theme song and starring Bollywood's most popular action star Akshay Kumar who first made a name for himself following his work in the profitable Khiladli series, the film intriguingly strikes a chord with the star on a personal level as Kumar was raised in Chandni Chok and later worked as a Bangkok chef before he reached Indian super-stardom.

Crafting a lovable loser underdog in the vein of Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther and Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat and infusing him with the humor of Jackie Chan, Kumar plays Sidhu, an unlucky vegetable peeler and assistant cook in Chandni Chok who-- very similar to Kung Fu Panda of all things-- is told his destiny is to become a great warrior. However, instead of being trained by Dustin Hoffman's adorable animated Master Shifu, the overly broad Sidhu whose constant pratfalls, stumbling, and over-the-top Kung Fu Hustle inspired effects for the first thirty to forty minutes wears on viewer's nerves, lands in China to star in the much more successful roughly two hour final part of the movie.

Realizing-- much too late-- that he's been duped and that he isn't the reincarnated village hero who's meant to assassinate the villainous mobster Hojo (Gordon Liu) who is overly fond of decapitating his enemies with a boomerang like hat (indicative of James Bond's shoe-throwing Odd Job in just one of several-- including one tongue in cheek dialogue reference to the 007 franchise), Sidhu finds himself embroiled in an increasingly complicated epic family mystery as the movie continues.

When he falls for the beguiling Indian TV commercial model Sakhi (supermodel Deepika Padukone, also known as the first Indian woman to become Maybelline New York Cosmetics' global face) and then mistakes the same woman for her Asian double Meow-Meow (also Padukone), Sidhu discovers a fascinating tale of a family destroyed by tragedy, twin sisters separated and more as the plot-line evolves into a fascinating high-concept soap, complete with the genres' trademarks of stylish fights and gorgeously executed musical numbers.

Although it's an uneven attempt and one feels far more engrossed in the plight of the young women as the movie improves upon its Chinese location change and Kumar's character Sidhu is able to ham less as the annoying buffoon and begin to turn more into the hero he'll become, it's still one of the most wholly original cinematic works we've seen in the theatre in a long while.

Additionally, it's one that-- even when you're completely lost by the plot or struggling to stay still during its 154 minute running time-- must be seen on the big screen for the entertaining spectacular diversion it is with characters using umbrellas as parachutes, the breathtaking Great Wall of China as a wondrous backdrop and decidedly the type of leave-your-worries-on-the-doorstep sunny offering the world needs right now in lieu of far too many hapless Oscar bait tragedies of dysfunctional families falling out of love and into loathe.

While it may be a tough sell to hardcore fans of Hong Kong kung fu and men who shudder at the idea of characters bursting into song-- once the movie picks up momentum, perhaps even the most extreme fans of martial arts cinema will at last be able to see the way the genres of slapstick and musical comedy compliment the fight choreography. Likewise, maybe they'll finally see what I've been trying to explain for years-- how in reality, the blending of the three had perhaps already been done to some extent (as in the Keaton and Chaplin styled routines of Jackie Chan) and rhythmic "greatest hits mix tape of martial arts" as Uma Thurman takes on a room full of Yakuza fighters in Kill Bill.