There’s Hollywood and Bollywood, but “Chandni Chowk to China” represents something new—Follywood. The notion on the part of Warner Bros. that this odd, overlong, disjointed melange of comedy, sentiment, action and music might have crossover appeal to a mainstream American audience is simply absurd. As far as the peculiar Bollywood conventions go, this weird picture might pass muster, but anybody looking for even a modicum of sense, genuine feeling or real humor will have to go elsewhere.
The picture stars Akshay Kumar, who’s apparently hot stuff on the subcontinent, as Sidhu, a stumblebum Indian vegetable-dicer who’s taken by some Chinese peasants as the reincarnation of their legendary warrior Liu Shen, who perished fighting barbarian invaders at the Great Wall centuries ago. Now that they’re being terrorized by a money-hungry villain named Hojo (Gordon Liu)—who’s apparently inherited that dangerous bowler hat wielded by Oddjob in “Goldfinger”—they desperately need a hero’s help, and so bring Sidhu to their village to protect them, along with his con-man mentor Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey). But he proves a goofy klutz, and can’t even prevent Hojo’s killing his beloved—if gruff—stepfather (Mithun Chakraborty), who, in the fashion of these pictures, has unaccountably appeared on the scene.
Up to this point, there are periodic musical interludes, with the usual generic-sounding Bollywood tunes and nonsense lyrics. But from here on the songs cease and the plot, so called, gets increasingly complicated and diffuse. One part of it involves twin sisters called Sakhi and Meow Meow (both played by Deepika Padukone), one a good girl and the other a femme fatale working with Hojo. Another concerns the duplicity of Chopstick. And a third focuses on an elderly beggar (Roger Yuan), who turns out to be Chiang, an erstwhile policeman and the father of the twins, who eventually trains Sidhu, “Karate Kid”-style, in the art of kung-fu. The connections among all these characters are at best ramshackle, and the sudden revelations aren’t meant to be credible (and certainly aren’t). But rest assured there are plenty of comic action sequences and it all ends in a big final face-off.
Throughout it all Kumar shows himself one of those people who don’t travel especially well. As a comedian he comes across like Jerry Lewis in his most antic phase—not a pleasant sight—and as an action star he resembles nobody as much as Steven Seagal. (Now there’s a fatal combination.) The rest of the cast pretty much share his aversion to the slightest hint of subtlety, but it must be said that, despite having to be called Meow Meow half the time (and called so often), Padukone looks very fetching, especially in Himman Dhamija’s candy-colored cinematography. Otherwise the picture is technically fine in the Asian style.
It may be that “Chandni Chowk to China” will be a huge hit in India, and even among the Indian-American community. Perhaps it will even strike a chord in China, where its aping of the Jackie Chan style may connect. But its trip to the United States is likely to prove a bumpy one.