As a former film student with deeply nostalgic feelings about Hong Kong cinema and an interest in the global film industry, it was with schoolgirl shrieking that I greeted the news of a joint Hong Kong/Bollywood kung-fu musical. Chandni Chowk to China is a mash-up of styles, a cinematic chocolate and peanut butter concoction (or perhaps chutney and egg roll).
Before I discuss the geo-political and cultural significance of Chandni Chowk to China let's first confirm that it has everything you expect.
Yes there are outrageous, overblown fight scenes, with wire-work and CGI chi effects and everything.
Yes, there are extended Bollywood-style dance numbers, with choruses of synchronized dance-girls, vibrantly colorful costumes, and inexplicable scene changes.
And yes, there are outrageous, extended fight-scene/dance-numbers. It is indeed the chimera film that international cinemaphiles have been waiting for all these years. While the musical and kung fu sequences are not the best we've seen, they are solidly competent representations of their respective institutions.
The writing and directing staff of Chandni Chowk to China have pretty shallow IMDB pedigrees. The giants of this production are Akshay Kumar and Gordon Liu, who both have over seventy film credits under their belt.
Akshay Kumar's personal mythology starts with him as a martial arts instructor in Thailand. Then he turned to modeling, the traditional back door to Bollywood for those whose last names aren't Kapoor, Dutt, or Bachchan.
Which is to say that he looks handsome on screen (at least toward the end of his character arc) and he handles the fight scenes with the serious efficiency of someone who has done hundreds of thousands of reverse-punches. Kumar appears here, fresh out of Singh is Kinng, a comedy about Sikhs that in an India two decades removed from the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the bloody sectarian violence that followed, caused only mild controversy. Kumar is just that silly. Or maybe everyone was just thrilled by the appearance by Snoop Dogg.
You might remember Gordon Liu from Kill Bill. Tarantino included Liu in his kung fu tribute film for the same reason you would include the Eiffel Tower in a tribute to Paris. He's the reigning godfather of old-school chopsocky, starring in movies such as 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Deadly Mantis, and Legendary Weapons of China. After all these years he looks pretty much the same: perfectly bald, intense, and sporting a featureless, lobster-red torso.
In Chandni Chowk to China he plays the villain, slaughtering his enemies with his razor-brimmed derby hat, the third most deadly weapon in the martial world after the flying guillotine and the garrote yo-yo.
Chandi Chowk to China begins in the eponymous Chandi Chowk market district of Delhi. Our hero, Sidhu (Kumar), struggles all day long chopping vegetables and frying fritters. As a goofy everyman he's a familiar character, not dissimilar to Amitabh Bachchan's duel-role in Don, a movie that Chandni Chowk references. Soon, a wildly improbable series of misunderstandings sends him to China. For the Indian diaspora, this too is a familiar story. He is every diligent worker who leaves home to seek a better life. There's even a comedic scene that takes place at the government emigration office.
For much of the first hour, the humor resembles the antics of a morning DJ. It's all shouting and silly noises and the broadest possible slapstick. But it's a likable sort of annoying, and there's enough goofy energy to carry it through to the serious business of punching people in the face. But at a Bollywood standard running time of two and a half hours, Sidhu has plenty of room to make the transformation from slum doofus to martial arts master.
As a cultural artifact created by burgeoning Asian superpowers, eyeballing each other over the Himalayas and brandishing their industrial economies, Chandi Chowk may or may not be significant. After all, Chinese cinema is not unfamiliar with multi-national productions, whether it be Enter the Dragon or Dracula and the Seven Golden Vampires. And Bollywood has been looking overseas for its productions for years now, filming in Malaysia, Europe, Thailand, Australia, and America.
And for all my talk about cultural synthesis, Chandni Chowk is unarguably a Bollywood film with a remote location. The convoluted plot with twins separated at birth, a potato shaped like Ganesh, and a bulletproof umbrella, is distinctly Bollywood. And China is portrayed as a foreigner's postcard stereotype, a China consisting largely of remote villages beset by roving warlords. Almost half of the scenes actually take place on the Great Wall. This isn't the real China, it's a pastoral alternative to India's crowded urbanity.
The Hindi film industry has grown increasingly sophisticated and snazzy in recent years. It's gone from being something you could only get in Indian groceries to this Warner-Brothers distributed American release. Chandni Chowk to China is the writing on the wall, the sign that this provincial film industry is going international. You owe it to yourself to see this movie before Hollywood appropriates the Bollywood style and it stops being cool.