by HELEN GEIB
Chandni Chowk to China takes a comic hero from a Bollywood comedy-musical and re-imagines his story as the starring part in a vintage Hong Kong kung fu movie. The plot is a mix of low-comedy and high-melodrama peppered with musical numbers and martial arts fights. The result is a synthesis of two great filmmaking forms and a funny, funny movie.
Bollywood star Akshay Kumar plays unlikely hero Sidhu, a none-too-bright, but good-natured young man who works for his foster father as cook and general dogsbody at a market food stall in Chandni Chowk, a district in the old city of Delhi. Fed up with a life of ceaseless toil and highly superstitious, he is easily persuaded to travel to China with a delegation of peasant villagers who are convinced Sidhu is the reincarnation of a Chinese folk hero. The villagers want Sidhu to free them from the tyranny of the local crime syndicate and its evil boss. Sidhu’s translator – a spurious spiritualist – conveniently leaves that part out to improve his own chances of cadging a free ticket to China. Other principal characters include beautiful twin sisters, separated in infancy by the machinations of the crime boss, and their father, an amnesiac police detective living in a homeless camp in the shadow of the Great Wall.
The Hong Kong and Bollywood cinema traditions prove a good fit in Chandni Chowk. They share a fondness for larger than life characters and a readiness to mix comedy and melodrama, making rapid transitions from one to the other between and even within scenes. And of course, an enthusiasm for elaborately staged, skillfully choreographed performance-based numbers.
In the ratio of martial arts numbers to musical numbers, the former have the clear advantage, although the direction and musical soundtrack give the fights a Bollywood inflection. There are a few abbreviated dance numbers in the India-set first act, but the film has only one full-on musical number. A dream sequence in which Sidhu imagines himself in different eras of Chinese history, it’s a real showstopper; the first segment, looking like nothing so much as an adaptive re-use of the sets and costumes from Zhang Yimou’s sumptuous Curse of the Golden Flower, is just incredible.
The big musical number is fittingly placed at the film’s geographic in-between point (Sidhu is napping fitfully on the plane). The film’s transition from musical to martial arts film/ Bollywood to Hong Kong is continued in the first big China-set number, a hybrid dance number/ fight. Having celebrated too enthusiastically upon his arrival at the village, the drunk Sidhu is happily dancing around the town square when the crime boss’s minions attack. Weaving around and kicking up his heels, Sidhu dodges every blow and takes out every enemy without ever realizing what’s going on. All of the fights are set in quintessential kung fu movie locations; the best, a showstopper to rival the dream sequence musical number, leaves a tea house more than a little the worse for wear.