Chandni Chowk to China (India/United States, 2009)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Chandni Chowk to China Poster

To Western audiences, Chandni Chowk to China will seem much like any Bollywood movie would seem: a rather astonishing mess. Like the cinematic equivalent of someone appearing on Mr. Blackwell's Ten Worst-Dressed list, the movie is a garish mix of conflicting styles and genres, cross-pollinating overproduced musical numbers, cheesy melodrama, and kung-fu. The film is too long by at least 30 minutes and drags noticeably during the second half but, in large part because of its "kitchen sink" approach, it offers its share of bizarrely entertaining moments, although one suspects that the average American movie-goer who has never before experienced the unique flavor of a Bollywood production won't know what to make of Chandni Chowk to China.

This is the first of a number of planned Bollywood releases by Warner Brothers into American multiplexes and, with a 50-market reach spanning more than 120 theaters, it represents the largest span for a Bollywood movie in the United States. The expectation isn't for the film to convert a lot of traditional movie-goers (to begin with, it's subtitled, which represents a growing barrier to those who frequent even art houses) but to cater to the ever burgeoning Indian and Indian American population. If nothing else, this will raise the profile of Bollywood and Bollywood stars in the United States.

The movie opens in the Chandni Chowk neighborhood in the city of Old Delhi, where a cook named Sidhu (Akshay Kumar) is about to get the surprise of his life. It seems that a couple of visitors from China have determined that he is the re-incarnation of a long-dead Chinese hero. Abetted by a con artist named Chopstick (Ravnir Shorey), they coax Sidhu into leaving behind his dad (Mithun Chakraborty) and heading to China, where he can rid their village of master kung fu crime lord Hojo (Gordon Liu). Of course, there's a girl involved. She's Sakhi (Deepika Padukone), a TV pitch woman who is the object of Sidhu's dreams until she plays a nasty trick on him. He encounters her again in China but discovers, to his confusion, that there appears to be two of her. That's because her estranged-from-birth twin sister, Suzy, is working as Hojo's henchwoman.

American filmgoers are accustomed to films that are purportedly set in "the real world" or something closely approximating it. Bollywood doesn't try for reality. Movies are living Disneyworlds: colorful, musical, and unrepentantly over-the-top. Chandni Chowk to China is the first Bollywood kung-fu movie, which is a little surprising, since kung-fu fits so well into this sort of motion picture. It also features the first-ever fight scene actually filmed atop the Great Wall, which is a coup of sorts.

The film is divided into two sections. The first is more lighthearted, and places Sidhu into an Inspector Clouseau-type role where his clumsiness and ineptitude allow him to thwart the bad guys. There's a fun song-and-dance number that has him literally slipping on a banana peel. The second half is more somber, with Sidhu, now seeking revenge and redemption, training with an ex kung-fu master turned amnesiac homeless man (played by Roger Yuan) before going into the final battle with Hojo. This portion of the movie has a few too many detours on the way to the climax and begins to feel drawn-out.

Chandni Chowk to China stars Akshay Kumar, one of the hottest (if not the hottest) stars in Bollywood today. He has an imposing physical presence and seems equally at home with action and comedy (although, like many Bollywood actors, his approach to drama is akin to that of silent film stars). He makes Sidhu a likeable enough fellow, although there are times when the character comes across as resembling Borat. Deepika Padukone, a supermodel-turned-actress, is impossibly gorgeous, joining Aishwarya Rai and Freida Pinto as Indian beauties whose screen appearances provide them with worldwide notice. Veteran Hong Kong martial arts superstar Gordon Liu has enough of a role to make kung fu fans feel more at home.

As with Jackie Chan movies, the action scenes are done with tongue-in-cheek, although the majority of the heavy lifting is accomplished via editing and special effects rather than using Chan's brute force methods. Also, Kumar lacks Chan's deftness; his approach to comedy is more from the Arnold Schwarzenegger school. Most of the fight scenes are played as much for laughs as to satisfy action junkies, although there are a couple of grisly cases in which Hojo throws his Oddjob-like bowler with decapitating precision. The special effects, to the extent that they are employed, are awful, so it's fortunate that there aren't many of them.

It's easy enough to see how someone unprepared for what Chandni Chowk to China is, would be either puzzled or revolted by the film. This is full-on Bollywood, not the North Americanized vision of films like Bride and Predjudice or even Slumdog Millionaire (which ends with a Bollywood-inspired musical number over the end credits), and the style will be as foreign to many U.S. viewers as the language. Nevertheless, for those with an adventurous and offbeat cinematic appetite, Chandni Chowk to China offers its shares of enjoyments, although there are plenty of "downs" to go along with the "ups." While I departed the theater with reservations, I will admit to liking this more than many of the painful American films opening during the same time period.

Chandni Chowk to China (India/United States, 2009)

Run Time: 2:38
U.S. Release Date: 2009-01-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: English subtitled Hindi and Chinese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1