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Friday, May 29, 2009

'Chandni Chowk to China'

Another brick in the mall


Indian filmmakers have apparently been learning much from Hollywood's hits: They've picked up on the use of digitally-generated FX, they're learning to work crossmarket platforms, and they've also mastered the art of making comic-book plots so stupefying they could serve as large-animal tranquilizers.

Chandni Chowk to China Rating: (2 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Over the top: Akshay Kumar leads the line in "Chandni Chowk to China." 2009 WARNER BROS. PICTURES (INDIA) PVT. LTD. AND RSE PEOPLE TREE FILMS

Director: Nikhil Advani
Running time: 155 minutes
Language: Hindi, Chinese, English
Opens Dec. 20, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Just as more and more bhangra and desi music stars go all hip-hop, Indian movies are starting to look more and more like any Hollywood tentpole flick. Some will call this "progress," but it seems more like just another symptom of the "mall-ification" of the entire planet, where wherever you go, you find the same branded experiences. One world, under Gap, indistinguishable, with Louis Vuitton and Justin for all.

Just take a look at "Chandni Chowk To China," the new Bollywood flick that represents Hollywood studio Time/Warner's first advance into the Hindi-language market. It's a canny blend of masala-movie flash and kung-fu comedy, which features fight sequences actually filmed on the Great Wall of China, but it winds up feeling like just another brick in the great mall .

"Chandni Chowk to China" is so Hollywood it even has a catchy abbreviated nickname, "CC2C." (Like "MI:3," "ID4," etc.) And just as Hollywood is prone to greenlighting movies based not on whether they'll make a good trailer or not, "CC2C" existed as a poster ad before there was even a story. Producer Ramesh Sippy had this vision of Bollywood action/comedy star Akshay Kumar (think Jim Carrey poured into Nick Cage) dressed in a Chinese robe and conical straw hat holding crossed swords with tandoori kebabs on them. Of such things, careers are made, apparently; Sippy pitched this poster art to his leading man and financiers, and the rest is history.

This story feels like they made it up as they went along, with a plot that tosses logic in favor of an escalating series of wild coincidences. Thus dimwit street cook Sidhu (Kumar) bumps into some Chinese villagers on a New Delhi back- street who think he's the reincarnation of a legendary swordsman. They bring him to China to fight the archvillain Hojo ("Kill Bill" 's Gordon Liu) and his minions, who have forced entire villages to work as his peons. (Slave labor in China being the one element of this film that isn't a stretch.) Hojo's main terror tactic is a bowler hat with razor sharp edges that he throws like a boomerang to decapitate people, a move that was surely original when Oddjob did it back in 1964 in "Goldfinger."

Once in China, Sidhu bumps into Indian TV model Sakhi. He'd been infatuated with her back in Delhi, but wait, it's not Sakhi, but her evil twin sister, Meow Meow! (Both played by the stunning Deepika Padukone.) But wait, Sakhi is also in China too, but since they were separated at birth, neither sister knows of the other's existence. But wait, there's also their amnesiac ex-cop father, who Sidhu finds when he's thrown off the Great Wall by one of Hojo's henchmen . . . at the exact same spot Sakhi was thrown off two decades earlier!

Don't expect any of this to make a lick of sense. The film's pleasure lies, as did that of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," in making the audience wait to see the star they all know and love. Thus Akshay Kumar spends most of the film behind a dorky moustache, getting his butt kicked by the bad guys, his dad, and even a girl. He's all pratfalls and over-eager babbling for the first two hours, until he finally shaves the 'stache, bares his ripped torso, and busts some heads.

Bollywood is famous for its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink "masala" approach where there's a bit of everything in there: comedy, romance, suspense, pathos, action, and, of course, dancing. Yet the director of "CC2C," Nikhil Advani, takes this to horrid extremes, showcasing one of the worst directing styles I've seen in a long time. The impression you get is that Advani's channel-surfing within his own film. One second, he'll have his hero Sidhu sitting on embers with steam blasting out of his ears and then getting kicked in the butt so hard that he flies about a kilometer above Delhi. An instant later, without any transition or set-up, Advani moves in for a tight closeup on an extended, blubbery goodbye between father and son as Sidhu leaves for China. It will take the weepy soundtrack in the background to clue you in that this is supposed to be serious.

The film flopped internationally and its big mistake seems to have been in not recognizing Bollywood's assets: it's criminally light on song and dance, while featuring loads of goofy, childish comedy, and martial arts wire action that's competent but lacking any of the verve or wild humor that made "Kung Fu Hustle" so welcome. The great crossover Bollywood flick will one day arrive, but "CC2C" sure isn't it.



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