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.
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.
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."
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.
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.