Kung Fu Pandemonium
Bollywood goes east—Far East—for Chandni Chowk to China, but the result is subcontinentally subpar
One of the most persistent legends about the Chinese martial arts is that their world-famous crowning glory, shaolin kwan (Shaolin temple boxing), was actually invented by a visitor from India. Admittedly, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the story began to get around that in the A.D. mid-500s, during a sojourn at the Shaolin Monastery in the northeast China province of Henan, the itinerant Indian monk Bodhidharma devised a set of strengthening exercises to help the lethargic monks stay focused during long sessions of meditation. These exercises later evolved into the world’s most admired regime of acrobatic fisticuffs. (Bodhidharma must have been a busy fellow: He is also the credited founder of Zen Buddhism.)
The Bodhidharma myth lends pleasing symmetry to this 21st-century Bollywood expedition to China for a martial-arts/song-and-dance crossover—a landmark collaboration between the mainland and the subcontinent, mediated by Warner Bros. Alas, Chandni Chowk to China, directed by Nikhil Advani (who made the great Kal Ho Naa Ho), is asymmetrical in the extreme: shapeless, shameless and slapdash. Sizable chunks of it were actually filmed in Thailand, and much of the rest could have been shot anywhere—on a back-lot Chinese village, or in front of a blue screen to be replaced by the skyline of Beijing.
CC2C (as it’s called in India) is based very loosely on the life of its leading man, the late-blooming superstar Akshay Kumar, a former chef and martial-arts instructor who was actually raised in the eponymous Chandni Chowk district, a market area of Old Delhi that has salt-of-the-earth, lower-middle-class implications. Kumar wasn’t seen as being in the same league as other male stars of his generation until relatively recently, when 2000’s Hera Pheri (Monkey Business) marked a shift in his persona from an action star with a likable goofy streak to a full-blown clown, bringing him a whole new level of celebrity.
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Kumar’s devotion to the Chinese martial arts is apparently sincere. (In 2004, he hosted the martial-arts-survey series Seven Deadly Arts on National Geographic’s Asia channel.) Yet it is CC2C’s central failure that Advani and company barely interact at all with the culture they supposedly set out to celebrate. There’s no possibility of China/India fusion because the twain barely meet. The desi visitors always seem to be on top of a hill or a mountain looking down at something—a village or a forest or a city—without ever entering into it. The same three or four locations (in particular, a single dusty section of the Great Wall—if that’s really what it is) are re-explored so often that our sense of their exotic charm evaporates.
The drama that plays out in front of this matte-painting backdrop is a mélange of old-school masala movie clichés decorated with some flashes of minty-fresh foolishness: Kumar’s childlike Sidhu is a Chandni Chowk kitchen assistant who has some impressive God of Cookery-style slicing and dicing moves. So it isn’t a total stretch when a couple of Chinese villagers show up in the neighborhood, insisting the cook is the reincarnation of an ancient warrior who alone can defend their village against the glowering, bowler-hatted and apparently motiveless tyrant Hojo (played with tree-trunk steadiness by Gordon Liu, a kung-fu icon from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin to Kill Bill). Sidhu consults a rescued potato in the shape of the Hindu deity Ganesh and, naturally, decides to make the trip.
From there, so much outrageousness ensues. There’s nothing even vaguely normal around for the weirdness to stand out against. We get cartoonish flying and fighting effects out of Kung Fu Hustle. We get a set of twins separated at birth—one good, the other evil (both played by anime-eyed ingenue Deepika Padukone). We get their rock-jawed father (Roger Yuan), once a decorated PRC police officer and now an amnesiac, mop-headed beggar living in a cave under the Wall. And we get a series of increasingly cacophonous and cluttered group-grope fight sequences, which have almost none of the grace and precision that bring the best such scenes close to uplifting song and dance—something a Bollywood filmmaker, of all people, should have been able to grasp.
Chandni Chowk to China was directed by Nikhil Advani; written by Rajat Arora and Shridhar Raghavan. Now playing at select theaters.