Thursday, January 15, 2009

Kung Fu kicks its way toward Bollywood

The title alone is enough to make movie marketers nervous. "Chandni Chowk to China" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, and if the movie's name proves challenging, its Bollywood blend of slapstick and martial arts doesn't always go down easily, either. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the showy artifice of Bollywood, but at 154 minutes, "Chandni Chowk" represents a challenge. That's a long time to watch what amounts to a massive cultural collision between Bollywood and Hong Kong moviemaking.

The movie centers on a vegetable cutter (Akshay Kumar) who plies his trade in the Chandni Chowk section of Delhi. The story begins when a couple of visitors from a Chinese village mistake Kumar's Sidhu for the reincarnation of a great Chinese warrior. They believe Sidhu can liberate their village from the iron hand of Hojo (Gordon Liu), a tyrannical gangster. Sidhu travels to China with a dubious mentor (Ranvir Shorey) who doesn't believe that his student can save anyone from Hojo, who flings a lethal bowler at his foes. The story adds further complications by introducing a pair of beautiful twins, one of whom grew up in India; the other, in China. And, no, I probably haven't summarized even half the plot.

Kumar, a big-name Indian star, works in a broad comic style that takes a bit of adjustment. Kumar shows no fear of going over the top. In fact, he launches himself in that direction every chance he gets. I suppose this kind of overstatement makes sense because the joys of Bollywood often require sustained displays of infectious energy. "Chandni Chowk" adheres to that and many other Bollywood rules. The colors are lush, the women (Deepika Padukone, Aishwarya Rai and Frieda Pinto) are beautiful and the music has a strong beat. This whole improbable mess of a movie might have been more fun had it not gone on quite so long or been quite so repetitious. A joke involving a potato in which Sidhu believes he sees the face of the Hindi deity Ganesh becomes a running and slightly tiresome gag.

The approach to martial arts may remind you of Jackie Chan; i.e., nothing is taken all that seriously. But Chan is better at this sort of thing than his Indian counterparts. Did I say nothing is taken seriously? Maybe that's not quite true. When Sidhu trains for his final battle with Hojo, the movie puts on a grim, fighting face, and Sidhu stops behaving like a hapless buffoon. A last-minute attempt at a comedy/Kung Fu remix doesn't quite work, but by the time that rolls around, you may have had enough. A little of this kind of Bollywood fare goes a long way; too much of it can make it make you feel as if your head is about to explode.

For a look at the career of Akshay Kumar, you might want to try this New York Times' article.

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