With the release of Chandni Chowk to China, the race for the title of Weirdest Movie of 2009 is off to a flying start. This jumbo-sized epic has been made jointly by the Indian and Chinese film industries.
Having coexisted uneasily on opposite sides of the Himalayas for thousands of years, these two ancient cultures have common ground in their billions of movie fans, and in recent years Indian filmmakers have started importing Chinese talent (mainly actors and martial-arts choreographers) to improve their product. This film is the highest-profile collaboration so far, and though large swatches of it don’t work, the clash of cultures guarantees that it tosses off some compellingly bizarre sparks.
The main character is Sidhu (Akshay Kumar), a sidewalk cook at a cheap restaurant in the Chandni Chowk district of Delhi. The buffoonish Sidhu keeps looking for ways to get rich quick, including starting a religious shrine after claiming to see an image of the god Ganesh in a potato. His real ticket out arrives in the form of two superstitious Chinese peasants whose village is being terrorized by a gang led by the evil mob boss Hojo (Gordon Liu from the Kill Bill movies). The peasants are in India looking for the reincarnation of the kung fu warrior Liu Sheng to save them, and they become convinced that Sidhu is their guy. Since nobody speaks the other’s language, it’s up to Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey) – Sidhu’s shifty half-Chinese personal religious guru – to translate, and he gets Sidhu on a plane to China by conveniently forgetting to tell him about how he’s supposed to kill Hojo.
For all its Chineseness, this 168-minute movie is a traditionally Indian piece of entertainment that throws every genre against the wall in hopes of entertaining every possible audience. (Don’t expect something Westernized and focused like Slumdog Millionaire.) The veteran star Kumar shows some impressive range as his character evolves from Borat-style boob to chiseled kung fu fighter. The first third of the film is a good deal of fun, with its cheeky references to Chinese movies like Kung Fu Hustle and The Curse of the Golden Flower and its musical numbers that feature large numbers of Chinese dancers bopping along to Bollywood grooves.
Still, Western viewers might find it tough to keep up when the initial music and broad comedy give way to weepy melodramatics and heavy action in the latter stages. They might also lose patience with the proliferation of plotlines and supporting characters, including a half-crazed beggar at the Great Wall (Roger Yuan) who used to be a Chinese cop and a flighty Bollywood starlet and a gangland assassin who turn out to be separated twin sisters (both played by supermodel Deepika Padukone). The two leads look credible in the kung fu sequences, the best of which are worthy of Chinese martial-arts cinema. Neither these nor the movie’s tearful family reunions and deaths of sympathetic characters can help it achieve the emotional resonance that it’s so clearly aiming for. Chandni Chowk to China’s roots in two such different film cultures make it unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. However, it won’t be good enough to make Americans prefer Akshay Kumar to Harold and Kumar.