Movie Review: Bollywood Goes East

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Sheena Sippy / Warner Bros.

Akshay Kumar as Sidhu and Deepika Padukone as Sakhi in Chandni Chowk to China

A veggie-slicing galoot from Delhi goes to China to realize his destiny as a martial-arts master — and just from the synopsis, I'm on board with Chandni Chowk to China. For, as any video nerd-historian will tell you, the two most exciting foreign movie industries of the past few decades have been Hong Kong and India. While European filmmakers went inwardly minimalist, those teeming Asian cinemas generated robust entertainment of pinwheeling action and violence (Hong Kong) and unabashed sentiment and music (Bollywood). Different in temperament, but alike in their vigor and brio, they were both exotic and oddly familiar to their American admirers. We realized that the radiant assurance of old-Hollywood movies hadn't died, it had just been reincarnated abroad.

Up through the '90s, movies houses in the Chinatowns of big U.S. cities showed Hong Kong films; and as the Desi community grew in the States, a nationwide chain of about 50 theaters played Indian hits. But Chinese and Hindi speakers mostly saw their favorite pictures the way we fanboys did: by renting them at specialized stores. Since the films were getting little official attention here, we video savants had two underground treasure troves all to ourselves. (See TIME's All-Time 100 Greatest Movies.)

Eventually Jackie Chan and Jet Li, after years as stars in the East, made a dent in the U.S. market; and in 2005 the movie Bride and Prejudice, starring Bollywood princess Aishwarya Rai, tried unsuccessfully to anglicize the Indian musical. Yet there's been little foreign exchange between the two national cinemas. So far as I know, Chandni Chowk, which Warner Bros. is giving a fairly wide release in the States this week, represents the first A-budget crossbreeding of Bollywood and Hong Kong.

The results of this genetic experiment are mixed. Chandni Chowk (named for a working-class neighborhood in Delhi) is probably a decent sampler for Americans who've never seen a full-out Bollywood musical, since it goes heavy on the action scenes and light on the big dance numbers. The movie does include other conventions of the genre, such as the need of a young man to both rebel against his father figure and please him, and the melodramatic abasing of the protagonist; but these are familiar from Hollywood films, so they won't strike the uneducated viewer as unduly weird, just a little hackneyed. Indeed, that's the impression I got from the movie: different faces, same clichés. And (another facet of Bollywood films), longer: 2 hours and 36 minutes. In current American movies, that running time would encompass the telling of a man's whole life, backward.

The plot should remind you of Kung Fu Panda, last year's excellent DreamWorks cartoon about the clumsy bear, employed in his father's noodle shop, who becomes a martial-arts expert and saves his village from a villainous tiger. Chandni Chowk is more a Kung Fu Pandit, with the oaf-hero Sidhu (Akshay Kumar), chopping away in the shop of his Dada (Mithun Chakraborty). Some visiting Chinese folks ID him as the incarnation of their nation's greatest warrior, Liu Sheng, and think Sidhu is just the fellow to rid their village of the oppressive Hojo (Gordon Liu). Accompanied by his raffish translator Chopsticks (Ranvir Shorey), Sidhu travels to the Great Wall, where his life is saved by a mysterious beggar (Roger Yuan) with twin Indo-Chinese daughters: the TV hostess Sakhi and Hojo's henchwoman Suzy (both played by Deepika Padukone) who were separated at birth and unaware of each other's existence.

To oversimplify just a tad, the nods to Hong Kong culture are fun, the Indian bits much less so. Yuan, who's worked mostly in the States, has a lovely gravity otherwise missing from the enterprise. And it's always great to see Liu, who bounded onto the Hong Kong screen as the head-shaved star of such '70s action classics as Challenge of the Masters and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin; his lingering impact in these roles led ex-fanboy Quentin Tarantino to cast him as a mob potentate in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and as the white-bearded Pai Mei in Kill Bill Vol. 2. Now in his early 50s, Liu still looks sinewy topless. This time his chief weapon is not his flying feet but a boomerang bowler he uses to decapitate his rivals.

The Indian stars aren't all bad either. Chakraborty exudes a fine and understandable exasperation at Sidhu's shenanigans; and 23-year-old Padukone, a former Model of the Year and the daughter of Indian badminton star Prakash Padukone, is up to the job of looking pretty while glycerine tears run down her perfect cheeks.

The problem is Kumar, who has risen in the Bollywood hierarchy from thug to action star to top comedian. Bearing a disconcerting resemblance to Adam Sandler in his clownish moments (and, when he finally achieves heroic stature, to John Turturro), Kumar must play a child-man whose talisman is a potato imprinted with the elephant likeness of the Hindu god Ganesh; but the 6 ft. 1 actor is too big and imposing to lend vulnerability to this naif. Instead of being innocent, he just seems slow. (On the flight to China, an Indian man seated behind Sidhu asks him, in English, "Are you stupid?") Comedy is the most local of movie genres, difficult to translate from one culture to another. What's funny in Austria won't get a giggle in Australia. The star's antics may kill 'em in Mumbai, but this New Yorker sat there stony-faced.

The movie finally comes to life when one of the main characters is suddenly killed. That cues the old-Bollywood sentiment and family imperatives; and the complex plot picks up narrative steam. Again, you've seen it all before — last summer, when the hero was a panda. Chandni Chowk thus has the feel of one of many Indian glosses on American films, not of something fresh and foreign. For a really thrilling amalgam of Bollywood and Hong Kong, I'm still waiting.

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