I haven’t seen a whole lot of Bollywood films, but those I have seen, on the whole I’ve liked. I’ve seen just enough of them to act like a shocking poseur among my immediate circle of acquaintances and work colleagues. “Slumdog Millionaire? Very impressive, but really only a Western distillation of the vibrancy and colour of a real Bollywood film. Also, I got the Amitabh Bachchan reference so clearly I am better than you.” I’m not proud of such behaviour, but then it’s not difficult to feel intellectually superior to most of the people I encounter at work. Just having seen a theatre production without any songs in it is enough to mark me out as an ivory-tower elitist in my office.
On the other hand I have seen what is technically known as a ‘shit-ton’ of Hong Kong kung fu movies. In fact I have so many of the damn things that the large shelf containing my Asian DVDs is full, and I’ve been forced to let them encroach into the territory occupied by non-chopsockey movies. The resulting ugly turf war between The Legend of Zorro and 10 Brothers of Shaolin hasn’t been pleasant at all. From a poseur perspective, my work colleagues have zero interest in even the arty martial arts films that get theatrical releases from time to time, so I don’t have to sully myself by trying to thematically link Flying Dagger to House of Flying Daggers in order to show off. Anyway, none of that is especially relevant, except to say that if there’s a target audience for a movie starring both Mithun Chakraborty and Gordon Liu, I’m it. Literally.
OK, me and about five other people.
Chandni Chowk to China opens with a narrator of the sort who pops up from time to time, mainly to explain events that are completely obvious from watching them unfold onscreen as he talks. Maybe he needed the work or something. At least he gets one brief chance to spell out things we don’t know yet, explaining about some famous Chinese warrior named Liu Sheng. Now, there was a real Liu Sheng, a prince of the Western Han dynasty, but as far as I know he wasn’t particularly renowned for his skill in battle. His main claims to fame are; one, he supposedly had 120 sons; and two; he was buried in a remarkable tomb full of fascinating archaeology, having presumably died from exhaustion. In the movie Liu Sheng fights gamely against some unidentified warriors on the Great Wall, until he’s eventually overcome and killed.
One unspecified-length jump forward to modern times later, in the Chinese village of Zhange. A nasty crime lord of some sort, Hojo (Gordon Liu!), has the villagers living in fear and made to work unearthing priceless artefacts for Hojo to sell. I had no idea there was such big money to be made in ancient Asian antiquities; presumably Hojo has a concession stand somewhere next to the villains from Drunken Master II and Ong Bak. If anyone in the village attempts to resist, Hojo kills them with either his awesome kung fu or his Oddjob-approved metal bowler hat. The desperate citizens of Zhange appeal to Buddha for a saviour, which inadvertently causes the Warrior Spirit of Liu Sheng to be reborn in India, or something.
Liu Sheng is reincarnated (or whatever, since it seems to happen instantly) into Sidhu (Akshay Kumar), a put-upon street chef in the teeming Delhi market area known as Chandni Chowk. Sidhu longs for some good fortune to take him away from this humdrum existence, but seems to be stuck with a particularly inauspicious horoscope. Having alienated every fortune teller and soothsayer in Delhi with the exception of his half-Chinese con artist friend Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey), Sidhu has all but given up. Until, that is, he finds a potato with the face of the God Ganesh on it. Perhaps this mystic potato is the good fortune Sidhu craves, and may even grant him the power to score a date with TV’s Miss TSM – a volcano-hot spokesmodel for the TSM brand of tacky electronic gadgets, such as the Dance-Master G9. Are you in a Bollywood movie? Can’t dance? Then just strap on the Dance-Master G9 and burn up the dancefloor. Miss TSM is played by Deepika Padukone (Om Shanti Om), and if Chanbara Beauty’s Eri Otoguro has a high ranking on the International Hot Index, Deepika has an IHI factor of “Oh God, I-I don’t know what happened, I… need some more shorts.” Seriously, in a country noted for how stunningly beautiful its actresses are, Deepika is 20 on a 10 scale. If I were a cartoon, my heart would be pounding three feet out of my chest and my head would have turned into a wolf making that ‘awoooooo!’ noise.
Er, where was I? A couple of believers from Zhange village arrive in Delhi looking for Liu Sheng. They find Sidhu, and beseech him to return with them and kill Hojo. Unfortunately Sidhu can’t understand Mandarin and has to fall back on Chopstick’s translating services. Chopstick senses profit and strings his friend along, saying the Chinese guys want Sidhu to go back to their village and be king. Sidhu readily agrees, and goes to the Chinese embassy for a visa. Here he runs into Sakhi, a.k.a. Miss TSM, who’s also planning a trip. Their meeting would have gone better if Sakhi hadn’t used her feminine wiles to steal Sidhu’s place in the queue.
Sidhu’s decision to leave doesn’t sit well with his adopted father Dada (Mithun Chakraborty!), who took him in as an orphan and taught him to cook. But Sidhu leaves anyway, and on arrival in China sees a familiar face – or so he thinks. It seems that Sakhi is there ahead of him, and looks strangely pregnant. In fact her fake bump is full of smuggled diamonds, and when Sidhu accidentally reveals her secret, she gets into an impressive kung fu battle with some cops. In fact the woman isn’t Sakhi at all, her name is Meow Meow, and she works for our bad guy Hojo.
The real Sakhi has gone to China to visit the TSM factory, which seems less like a manufacturer of cheap tat and more like Q Branch. The other reason she travelled so far was that this lovely woman had a Chinese father, Inspector Chang Kohung (Roger Yuan Tzi-chun, Shanghai Noon). He once arrested Hojo, only to be attacked on the Great Wall by Hojo and his men while he and his wife were on a day out with their twin daughters. After a fierce battle Chang plummeted over the wall with his daughter Suzy, and both were presumed dead. So Sakhi has gone to China to symbolically lay them to rest at the same place. It just so happens that the villagers have taken Sidhu to the Great Wall to the spot where Liu Sheng was killed, and Meow Meow (actually Suzy, having survived and been raised by Hojo) is in pursuit. As it happens, Chang survived as well, but with head-injury induced amnesia. He now lives as a hermit at the base of the Wall. Cue wacky misunderstanding where the cops think Sakhi is really Suzy/Meow Meow. Sidhu meanwhile bumbles his way through an assassination attempt by Suzy. In order to escape, Sidhu hides out in the car back to Zhange village.
When Suzy returns to Hojo’s lair, she tells him the villagers think Sidhu is the reincarnation of Liu Sheng. Hojo sends Suzy to kill Sidhu with a poison kiss. Meanwhile Chopstick knocks Sakhi out cold, and thinking she might still be a criminal, Sidhu ties her up and hides her in a cupboard. Suzy shows up to administer her lethal lipstick, and they manage to knock her out too, but assume Sakhi must have escaped. Inevitably, one of Hojo’s goons rescues the wrong twin. Chopstick meanwhile is smitten with the dangerous Suzy, and frees her. She quickly seduces him into helping her get rid of Sidhu. It makes a lot more sense in the movie than it does on paper, I assure you.
Under pain of, er, pain, Chopstick tells Hojo that he conned Sidhu into coming to China, and his unwitting friend has no idea what the villagers expect of him. Meanwhile Sakhi, who has been dropped off in Suzy’s room and apparently forgotten about, listens in on a TSM gadget that can make instantaneous audio translations. Impressive stuff, I don’t think even the iPhone has an app. for that. Suddenly emboldened, Hojo goes to the village and forces Chopstick to tell Sidhu the truth. Even worse, Hojo’s goons have gone to Chandni Chowk and kidnapped Dada. Sidhu implores Hojo to let his adopted father go, much to Dada’s embarrassment. The older man’s disappointment in his surrogate son is mirrored in the audience’s, when Hojo Kills Dada with his hat. On what planet is it a good idea to put Mithun Chakraborty and Gordon Liu in the same scene and not have them fight??
Hojo has Sidhu beaten up, then with a sense of dramatic irony (and in order to advance the plot) has him thrown off the Great Wall. Sidhu is saved by the amnesiac Inspector Chang, who still doesn’t remember anything but at least speaks Hindi. Realising that Sidhu is still alive, Hojo sends his henchman White Bull (Conan Stevens, Somtum) to kill him. Something else Chang hasn’t forgotten is how to lay the kung fu smackdown, and with Sidhu’s unwitting help their giant assailant is defeated. Meanwhile, Sakhi convinces the guilt-ridden Chopstick to wheedle his way into Hojo’s gang. In this way she plans to avenge herself on Hojo, but Sidhu tries to kill him first. When his attempt goes horribly wrong, Sidhu only escapes because Sakhi rescues him. The former Miss TSM has now been won over by Sidhu’s bravery, making him the proverbial lucky bastard in more ways than one.
Chang suffers a convenient head injury and gets his memory back. Sidhu, still burning for revenge and justice, convinces the reluctant cop to teach him kung fu. First comes the inevitable “wax-on, wax-off” portion where Sidhu complains about some pointless menial task that’s actually training him to be a martial arts master. Then we get a delightful training montage underscored by a cracking Bollywood disco number. Hey, it beats stealing the Star Wars score or old Jean-Michael Jarre records, as kung fu movies have been wont to do in the past. Eventually Sidhu is ready to take on Hojo, but with the matter of Suzy still hanging it’s going to take a lot of soul-searching, a couple of double crosses and the restless spirit of Mithun Chakraborty before we finally get our happy ending.
I happened across a trailer for Chandni Chowk to China online one day, and was impressed enough to order the DVD. Having watched the movie I cast about online for more information and was surprised to discover the critical savaging the film received in India, where it was a massive flop. The reaction in the US, where Chandni Chowk to China had a limited release, was only marginally better. The critic at Entertainment Weekly complained it lacked the ‘lyrical choreographic beauty’ of popular Bollywood imports like Lagaan. I can’t help feeling this comment is rather missing the point. Chandni Chowk to China is a broad action comedy, and while it doesn’t have enough unpleasant scatological humour or juvenile gay jokes to compete with the oeuvre of a Seth Rogen or an Adam Sandler, as an action comedy I thought it was quite enjoyable.
Entertainment Weekly’s reviewer Owen Gleiberman goes on to say the movie “lacks the demented slapstick ingenuity of Stephen Chow’s 2005 Kung Fu Hustle.” He’s a bit more on the money here; there are moments when the action goes off into CG fantasy land, but always seems a little self-conscious about it. The rest of the fight scenes are straight kung fu with the occasional wire assist, and the two styles don’t really gel. The filmmakers would have done better by going all out one way or the other. The choreographer was Ku Huan-chiu, who spent a number of years as Jet Li’s stunt double. The cast includes some talented fighters but the action scenes never quite come to life as they should. A symptom of the differing styles of a Hong Kong stunt crew and Indian director? Who knows. Certainly the fights aren’t bad, and the performers do their jobs well. Gordon Liu needs very little introduction, having starred in any number of classic kung fu movies. Roger Yuan has been tooling around in small roles and as a stunt performer for years now, and he gets the chance to shine here. For my money he gets the best of the kung fu scenes, and his acting is just as good. It’s a shame the film wasn’t more successful, as it could have led to bigger roles for Yuan.
One of the interesting things about Bollywood is how to an outsider, its biggest names can be complete unknowns. Ashkay Kumar is just such a megastar. He hit the big time in the thriller Khiladi, which was so successful that it led to him starring in a string of movies with ‘Khiladi’ in the title. Having trained in (and for a time taught) martial arts, Kumar developed a following as Bollywood’s action hero. Later he branched out into romance and comedy, also with considerable success. Chandni Chowk to China should have been the perfect vehicle for Kumar, giving him the chance to show his skills in all of these areas. He looks great in the action scenes, and for once it’s nice to see a fighting badass who, while clearly very fit, has a bit of thickness in the midriff and a thick carpet-like pelt across the shoulders. He’s like an Indian Chuck Norris, only without all the scary Creationism and homophobia. I’ll definitely be checking out some of Kumar’s other work.
But inevitably my favourite thing about the film is the luscious Deepika Padukone. The former model shot to fame in 2007’s Om Shanti Om, before taking on the old Bollywood staple of one actor playing long lost twins in this movie. The film doesn’t give her the opportunity to stretch her thespian muscles too much, but she has a nice comic flair and is as sexy as hell. The film also won me over considerably by giving her a kung fu fight, which she handles decently. Now all I want is for her to team up with Malika Sherawat from The Myth, and the two of them to have lots of sexy Bollywood chopsockey adventures.
So if the action is decent and the cast impressive, why wasn’t the film a success? It definitely seems to have been made with an eye firmly on the international market. It’s only a couple of hours long (almost a short by Bollywood standards) and has very little in the way of dance numbers. Apart from the catchy title song, most of the brief musical bits are comprised of jokey callbacks to classic Bollywood films (there’s even a snippet of the theme from Disco Dancer). This mix & match approach doesn’t seem to have gone over well with the local audience, and the references are likely to be lost on casual Western viewers. Again, I’m not quite sure what the filmmakers were thinking.
But for all its faults Chandni Chowk to China is still a film I enjoyed a lot, even if it is a bit all over the place. It’s a film that probably works best if you have some familiarity with both Bollywood films and kung fu movies, which is a pretty specific demographic (see? Told you I was the target audience). And if nothing else, you get double the Deepika Padukone for your money. But if only, if only, they’d let Mithun fight Gordon…
Release Year: 2009 | Country: India/USA | Starring: Akshay Kumar, Deepika Padukone, Mithun Chakraborty, Ranvir Shorey, Gordon Liu Chia-hui, Roger Yuan, Kiran Juneja, Lau Yuk-ting, Jun Li, Conan Stevens | Screenplay: Shridhar Raghavan, Rajat Arora | Director: Nikhil Advani | Cinematography: Himman Dhamija, Manikandan | Music: Bohemia, Shankar Mahadevan, Loy Mendonsa, Ehsaan Noorani