Monday, June 1, 2009


Something was different about this DVD, different from the other Indian videos in the Albany Public Library's collection. They're all distributed by Indian companies, but Nikhil Advani's martial arts comedy musical was packaged by Warner Home Video. Turns out that the big TW invested in this film, which probably explains its lavish look. It also turns out that they took a bath. Like the other Indian films I've examined since starting this blog, Chandni Chowk to China was a critical and box-office bust when it hit theaters last January. I seem to be attracted to those qualities that repel the average Indian moviegoer. In that regard, that makes the average Indian moviegoer little different from the average American moviegoer, at least of the present day.

Does that mean I liked Chandni Chowk? To be accurate, I was fascinated by it, as I was by the sci-fi trainwreck Love Story 2050. Advani's film, produced by Ramesh Sippy (It is, in fact, Ramesh Sippy's Chandni Chowk...) has the same everything-and-the-kitchen-sink quality, and piles on top of that its most distinguishing characteristic: a blatant thematic and stylistic ripoff of Kung Fu Hustle. Because that's what Stephen Chow's film was missing, now that I think of it: music video style production numbers! That, and the Great Wall of China.

Chandni Chowk is a market district of the Indian city of Delhi. There dwells Sidhu (Akshay Kumar), a vegetable chopper for Dada, who has raised the orphan to manhood with the kind of tough love that involved kicking him for long distances across the Delhi cityscape. Sidhu hopes for a better life but puts his trust in luck and the advice of his dubious guru Chopstick, a half-Chinese practitioner of Feng Shastra, a hybrid discipline. Our hero thinks his luck has changed when he finds a potato with what looks like an elephant trunk. That means it's the image of Lord Ganesh!

No sooner than you can say "shrine of the holy tortilla" he and Chopstick have a pilgrimage racket going, but extortionists ruin their fun, forcing Dada to bail them out, after which he punts poor Sidhu some kilometers away, where he lands at the feet of two Chinese tourists who naturally conclude that he is the reincarnation, whom they've come to India to seek, of their village's great hero, Liu Sheng.

We were shown Liu Sheng's legendary battles against invaders on the Great Wall before the opening credits. He's the hero of the village of Zhange, which we learned was now under the thumb of the vicious Hojo and his criminal gang. How vicious is Hojo? He's played by Gordon Liu, for one thing, and he has an Oddjob boomerang model bowler that he uses to slit the throats of uppity folk. This scumbag is looting the village of its cultural treasure and selling them off to foreigners. It's a good way to smuggle stolen diamonds out of the country while they're at it. You might wonder what the Communist government is doing about this, but you probably shouldn't. This film takes place in a fantasy China (though you might observe that Liu Sheng wields a hammer and sickle in battle and on his statue in the village center). In the real China the government wouldn't have tolerated Hojo's antics, or else he'd be bribing them so they wouldn't tolerate our heroes antics later.

Gordon Liu of 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Kill Bill fame as Hojo (center) with friends in Chandni Chowk to China.

The Chinese don't speak Hindi, so Chopstick interprets for them. He knows that the hapless Sidhu is incapable of fighting Hojo as they wish, but this opportunity looks like a free ticket to China for him. It's a dilemma illustrated by the literal appearance of good (angel-winged) and bad (dressed like a mandarin) little conscience figures on his shoulders. He decides not to tell Sidhu what's expected of him, explaining instead that the slogan dado hojo actually means "you're the coolest" or something like that. So it's off to China, but not before a bizarre encounter outside the Chinese consulate between Sidhu and "Miss TSM," a commercial spokesperson for the DanceMaster G9, which seems to be a set of ankle bracelets that simulate (or stimulate) accurate dance moves. She clasps a pair on Sidhu and induces a spastic episode that enables her to steal his spot in line -- why someone who represents a Chinese company should do this is unclear, but it keeps the plot moving.

Her commercial was the film's first quasi-musical number. The next is a dream inspired by Sidhu watching a Chinese tourist video on the plane. This is Bollywood on a huge scale, with what I think is a CGI Forbidden City with lots of extras in traditional costumes out of a Zhang Yimou fantasy film, followed by a vignette in glamorous 1930s Shanghai with some fine looking women, and petering out in hip hop style as our dubious heroes reach the Middle Kingdom.

Met by adoring villagers, Sidhu breaks away when he thinks he sees the wicked Miss TSM in the airport. Can't be, though; this lady sort of looks like her, but she's pregnant. No, she isn't. She suddenly whips off a fake tummy bulge as the airport security closes in and starts kicking the crap out of them and lashing at them with the spurs on her pigtails. Meanwhile, the real Miss TSM is visiting the company factory, which proves to be the film's musical Q lab. Singing scientists demonstrate instant translation devices and a bulletproof umbrella that doubles as a parachute. "Wow, James Bond!" she exclaims in English.

But China proves a bit of a buzzkill for the perky spokesperson. Like Chopstick, she's of mixed blood, and while visiting the Great Wall (just about everyone does in this picture) she recalls how her father, a Chinese policeman, died fighting Hojo while she and her Indian mother escaped. Sakhi (to use her real name) had a twin sister named Suzy, but she's presumed dead after Hojo's monster albino goon Joey, aka White Bull, threw her off the Wall, Dad diving off after her. Sakhi disperses some memorial flower petals, which drift down into the hands of a shabby bearded tramp who appears to live inside the Wall. Could he be...? And could Suzy be...? Not the vicious criminal Meow Meow, Hojo's ruthless lieutenant, could she??? Who am I kidding?

Despite Chandni Chowk's drubbing by critics, Deepika Padukone earned an Asian Film Awards Best Actress Nomination for her dual role as Miss TSM (Sakhi) and Meow Meow (Suzie).

Sidhu and Chopstick have settled in at Zhange after unwittingly dodging assassins and after Sidhu manages to fall off the Great Wall. The village holds a festival to celebrate his arrival, and the next big musical number is an homage to Jackie Chan's drunken boxing as a hammered Sidhu serendipitously dodges all manner of attacks from Hojo's foot soldiers. He then meets cute again with Sakhi, who has made her way to the village, until Chopstick breaks a bottle over her head. Then Meow Meow arrives, hoping to seduce Sidhu into a fatal kiss with poisoned lipstick. She lip-synchs at him in oldschool shrill Bollywood style, but his drunken mastery still prevails. But Chopstick falls in love with Meow Meow on sight and serenades her until Sidhu breaks a vase over her head and throws her in the same closet Sakhi was dumped in earlier. Another of Hojo's minions sneaks Sakhi away, while a waking Meow Meow hears from Chopstick that Sidhu "dances to my tune." So she frees herself, captures Chopstick and takes him to Hojo for a meeting recorded discreetly by Sakhi, who somehow got loose and somehow gets back to the village just before Hojo arrives in force.

The villagers give the still-clueless Sidhu a hammer and sickle to kill Hojo, but he thinks he's just there to chant friendly slogans until Chopstick finally sets him straight. There's another surprise in store: Hojo had sent White Bull to India to find dirt on Sidhu, and he's come back with Dada as a hostage. Sidhu begs Hojo to spare his surrogate father, but Dada exhorts him to fight. He sets an example himself. We saw earlier that he can fight, but he's no match for a hat to the throat. And here the tone shifts. A good guy character has been brutally killed, and it suddenly isn't funny. Sidhu is abject with grief and shame, writhing in agony on the ground before rising in rage to make a pathetic attack on the villain. Hojo orders White Bull to throw him out of China via the Great Wall, which the film sometimes treats as if it were the actual border of the country.

Maybe they don't compartmentalize genres and their emotional elements in India like we do in America. It might not have been as much of a jolt for them to have a "tragic" episode in what will remain a comic film, even if it seems wrong to others. But there was always room for pathos amid comedy in the old days. Chaplin seemed to think it was a necessary part of the equation. Keaton, on the other hand, might have killed Dada with a sight gag -- not that the bowler hat isn't one, but you get my point. On the third hand, Sidhu is more like a Harold Lloyd character in his struggle for self-confidence, and the movie in some ways reminds me of the Hope-Crosby Road movies-- but before I continue speculating this way I must remind myself that this film bombed in India, which means that whatever was going on here, most Indians probably thought it wasn't funny, but "stupid."

We left Sidhu being flung from the Great Wall. Who should catch him but the tramp who we pretty much assume to be Sakhi's father. He nurses Sidhu back to help but mocks his sacred potato, which our hero has been holding onto throughout the picture. Turn that into french fries, the tramp says. "This isn't a potato," Sidhu protests, "This is my god!" Then he notices that the tramp had been speaking Hindi to him, but the tramp (in Hindi) denies this. He thinks he's speaking Chinese. As you see, after a mournful musical number in memory of Dada, the comedy has more or less resumed. But now it has a dramatic edge as Sidhu vows to truly "become Liu Sheng" and avenge Dada by destroying Hojo. The tramp leads Great Wall tourists in laughing at the idea.

Learning that Sidhu is still alive and that a suspiciously familiar man is harboring him, White Bull attacks the odd couple in an empty restaurant. At this point, Sidhu becomes a living weapon, because the tramp uses him as such, manipulating his limbs to punch and kick the enemy. This amazes Sidhu, who takes it as a sign that "Liu Sheng has stirred!" At last White Bull, wounded by chopsticks, recognizes the tramp as Chiang Kohung the policeman before said policeman kills him by throwing Sidhu on top of him to drive the chopsticks in more deeply. Hearing his name restores his memory, except he now thinks he's still a cop (after 20 years) and attempts to arrest Sidhu for killing White Bull.

Somehow Sidhu escapes this predicament and somehow infiltrates the Shanghai Opera as a spear-carrying extra so he can attempt to assassinate opera fan Hojo. It all goes by too quickly before you can ask "how?" or "why?" and the end result is another extra killed with a spear meant for Sidhu. Hojo chases him into an office building, where they face off in an elevator before Sakhi appears to drive Hojo off with some TSM brand Mace. She and Sidhu flee to the roof, and the only way out is down. Luckily, Sakhi brought her TSM super umbrella for some Mary Poppins action that inspires a musical interlude as hero and heroine float over the city.

By this point I had to admit that there were too many clothes in the washer and the soap was starting to come out through the cracks of this strange contraption. But still to come is another attempted arrest by the still-deranged Chiang, halted only when he recognizes Sakhi as his long-lost daughter. Still to come is Chiang's unbelievable reinstatement in the police force, and his agreement to train Sidhu rigorously (and at punishing length for the viewer) in his unique style of "cosmos kung fu." Still to come is the belated truth of Meow Meow's origin. And of course, still to come is the final showdown with Hojo, in which a clean-shaven Sidhu must learn all the lessons that have been thrown at him throughout the picture about finding his power within himself -- and the scene when Hojo turns into a potato.

Director Advani really loves the Great Wall, so I had to give you one shot of it.

Sidhu demonstrates his innovative cosmic kick, which Chiang rates as only a 9.5 out of 10.

I honestly find this Leone-inspired shot (above) to be pretty cool looking.

India sure knows how to make train wrecks of movies the way we used to do over here. In fact, Chandni Chowk to China reminded me in many ways (including the use of a narrator) of no less an American train wreck than Hudson Hawk, which you'll recall also featured a hero that danced and sang, after a fashion. Akshay Kumar, I learn, is more of an action-comedy star than a pure comedian, so a comparison to Bruce Willis is even more apt. He was more acceptable to me than an American comedian probably would be in an otherwise similar film, but that's probably because I don't know him enough to despise him. I happened to find Hudson Hawk a very entertaining train wreck because of its almost arrogant defiance of action-movie conventions. I have no way to know if Chandni Chowk was as transgressive a film for Indians as Hudson Hawk was for Americans, but I couldn't help being impressed by its out-of-control audacity, even as I realized that its inspiration was flagging badly as it became baldly imitative of Kung Fu Hustle in its final fight scenes. By the time Gordon Liu had become a potato (not literally, but for crying out loud, that image is so wrong!), the show had definitely jumped the shark. But you know what? Sometimes people jump the shark for a reason, and sometimes jumping the shark is what people pay to see. And this is the kind of film where the stuntman wipes out on the opposite ramp, takes out a row of barrels, then gets up and takes a flamboyant bow. Chandni Chowk's way of doing that is to tease a sequel that will never be by introducing pygmies and announcing Chandni Chowk to Africa! That is a gesture I have to salute.

But only the moving image can truly convey the madness that is Chandni Chowk to China, so here's a trailer, uploaded by szymon2707

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