[The infamous poster...]
It seems appropriate to tackle Chandni Chowk to China next after Saawariya as it is possibly the second most notorious Hollywood-financed flop. Chandni Chowk to China (hereafter CC2C) was supposed to be everything Saawariya wasn’t, populist entertainment in the masala mode with an eye towards capturing both South Asian and Western audiences. The ingredients to this Chinese themed masala were simple – take one part khiladi, two parts buzzworthy Om Shanti Om starlet Deepika Padukone, add a hearty helping of comedy, sprinkle a soupcon of Shaan-style plotting, and serve on a bed of vintage kung fu. Sounds appetizing, right? So, why did it flop so miserably?
After seeing the implosion of Sony’s auteur-driven Saawariya this must have seemed like a safe bet for Warner Brothers for one reason – Akshay Kumar was the current king of the box office. When CC2C began filming, Akshay was coming off of an amazing year that had him starring in four box office smashes - Namastey London, Heyy Babyy, Bhool Bhuliyaa, and Welcome. After a small setback with Tashan (which I’m covering next) came the biggest hit of 2008, Singh is Kinng. That makes five super-hit comedies for Box Office King Kumar in two years and is nothing to sneeze at.
Some films fail because they reach for the stars and fall short – like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s attempt to transform a delicate Russian short story into a film. CC2C took the opposite approach. According to legend, the genesis of the film began with a poster - a poster for a film called Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu. I imagine the look was very similar to the finished poster for actual film, with Akshay holding two swords with vegetables on the ends, as if he’s just kung-fu hustled them. Perhaps it’s not the wisest business decision to sign a film based on the poster alone but for Akshay Kumar, it must have looked like a sign from God. You see, Akshay – back when he was Rajiv Hari Om Bhatia – actually did travel from Delhi to Thailand, where he worked as a cook while studying martial arts. And even after Rajiv returned to India and became Khiladi Kumar, he has always maintained a soft spot in his heart for the practice of martial arts.
Akshay gets a bad rap for churning out tons of films in the same mold but if you pay attention to his career he is always trying to do something just a bit different. (For example, his character in Thank You is absolutely nothing like his character in Tees Maar Khan and yet both of those films were painted with the same broad “stupid comedy” brush by the media.) So, after doing all of those comedies in 2007, Akshay wanted to return to action – first with Tashan, which didn’t catch on for various reasons, and then with some parkour in Singh is Kinng but CC2C was hyped as the real return of the Capital K Khiladi. Akshay was rumored to have been brushing up on his martial arts and references to Jet Li and Jackie Chan were tossed around in interviews.
Now, if there is one thing I can’t stand about Akshay Kumar, whom I love dearly, it is his overactive PR machine. The PR team, which is the one that churns out those ‘on-set stories’ that have no basis in reality (“AKSHAY SAVES KATRINA FROM MOB!!1!111!”) went into overdrive for CC2C. Everything was hyped beyond any reasonable standard – exotic locations, comedy, action, romance, adventure, and (the big one) HOLLYWOOD-STYLE FILMMAKING. As CC2C taxied into its release date, there were global premieres from Toronto to London and paid previews galore in India. This was going be the MOST AMAZING AND BEST FILM OF ALL TIME!
And then the reviews started rolling in.
Bad reviews worldwide.
Not only that but the punters weren’t biting either. A resounding FLOP echoed through empty cinema halls… (well, in full disclosure, empty except for your beloved Filmi Girl who enjoyed it so much she saw it twice.)
Khiladi Kumar was no longer Kinng of the box office… and has yet to recover from this flop.
CC2C begins with a flashback to ancient times where we meet the ancient Chinese warrior Liu Sheng (Tang Teng Fei) who single-handedly defeated hordes of invaders before meeting a grisly end on top of the Great Wall of China. Flash forward to current day China where a small village is suffering under the thumb of Hojo (Gordan Liu) and his bleached blond son Frankie (Kevin Wu.) Hojo is forcing the villagers to dig up ancient artifacts with the aim of selling them off to the West and anybody who gets in his way is swiftly dispatched with a well-timed throw of his decapitating bowler hat – a trick he picked up from Odd Job. The village consults a fortuneteller who says that Liu Sheng has been reborn and the village sends a couple of the villagers (Chang En Liu and Jun Li) out to find him… which they do, in the form of dimbulb Sidhu (Akshay Kumar.)
Sidhu works assisting his Dada (Mithun Chakraborty) at the family food stall in Chandni Chowk and is one of the unluckiest men to walk the planet Earth. Despite all of his Dada’s great advice to work hard, Sidhu prefers to daydream about get rich quick schemes and consult fortunetellers. Unluckily for Sidhu, one of these fortunetellers speaks Chinese – a guy named Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey, who needs to do more comedies paired up with Akshay.) Chopstick deliberately mistranslates the villagers message that Sidhu is the reincarnation of a king and he needs to kill Hojo as “tu cheez bari hai mast mast” i.e. that Sidhu is the reincarnation of a king and is therefore awesome. (Slight difference in translation.) Over the objections of Dada, Sidhu (and Chopstick) travel to China.
Meanwhile, TV shopping network hawkswoman Miss TSM (Deepika Padukone) is also traveling to China in order to inspect the factory that makes her products. She gets into an altercation with Sidhu, who promptly falls in love with her. It doesn’t take too long for Sidhu to run afoul of Miss TSM’s doppleganger – Meow Meow (also Deepika Padukone) – who just so happens to work for, yes, Hojo.
Hojo finds out about the Reincarnation of Liu Sheng plot afoot in the village and sends his best henchman Joey (Friend of Filmi Girl, Conan Stevens) and Meow Meow to stop it. Dada is killed, Miss TSM and Meow Meow have their identities confused, Chopstick is a dick, and the hapless Sidhu is unceremoniously thrown off of the Great Wall of China. Interval. Are you following so far?
Post-interval, Sidhu is taken in by an amnesiac bum who lives under the wall (Roger Yuan) … a bum that just so happens to be Meow Meow and Miss TSM’s father - because, oh yeah, they are twins separated at birth. The twins’ father is a former policeman/kung-fu expert that, once he recovers his memories, agrees to train Sidhu in kung-fu in order to defeat Hojo.
You can guess how this ends. Hint: Hojo is defeated and Sidhu lives to tell the tale - Happys Endings, although not for Akshay Kumar, whose career has yet to recover from the drubbing he took over this film.
I, on the other hand, found CC2C to be a remarkably enjoyable film but it is not the film that was advertised. First of all, it is exactly as intellectual as one might expect from a script penned by the same team that brought us Bluffmaster - Rajat Arora and Shridhar Raghavan, i.e. not very. And their not-so-deep script draws more from the kung-fu tradition than anything having to do with classic masala films. Instead of the themes of fate, divine will, and fulfilling one’s destiny, Sidhu learns to persevere through hard work and doing his best. And one of the most interesting wiggles to the CC2C script is idea that you create your own fate. The most dimbulbish aspect to Sidhu’s personality is his desire to get something from nothing – like imagining the image of God in a potato. Much to his Dada’s chagrin, Sidhu goofs off buying lottery tickets and visiting fortunetellers instead of dedicating himself to the life right in front of his face. It’s rather a shame that the heft of this somewhat subversive message is buried under a mountain of gags, since critics tend not to appreciate slapstick and dismissed the entire film as a ‘brainless comedy.’
And speaking of slapstick, one of the biggest dividing lines on CC2C is the extent to which one appreciates director Nikhil Advani, whose style doesn’t seem to gel all that well with mainstream audiences. All of his films from Kal Ho Naa Ho to Patiala House have mixed maudlin emotion with filmi references and cartoonish setpieces – like the Lagaan inspired sequence and the Kanta-bai jokes in KHNH. Previous films had more or less kept that jokey tendency in check with romance and melodrama but in CC2C that cartoonish sensibility takes center stage. Nearly the entire first half is dominated by references to old film songs, cartoony slapstick, and (oddly) strong Sean Connery-era James Bond references. Towards intermission we get some deep melodramatic emotion but its not until the very end that the kung-fu khiladi makes his appearance. And in between everything is a joke – usually making an old filmi reference.
For those who don’t share Nikhil Advani’s specific sense of humor, I completely understand how CC2C would be unenjoyable and for those who didn’t get all the filmi references, large portions of CC2C would be incomprehensible. Personally, I found the James Bond-style gadgets and the Odd Job references to be hilarious. Not only that but I adore film song references. For my money, the best gag in the film involved Chopstick and Sidhu bickering over who got to dance to Churake Dil Mera from vintage Akshay-Saif film Main Khiladi Tu Anari. Another good one had Sidhu on a plane watching Nikhil Advani’s previous film Salaam-e-Ishq before turning the channel in a fit of boredom. Other stylized gags draw inspiration from classic cartoons or were just wonderfully executed pratfalls, like Sidhu slipping on a banana peel in the middle of a song picturizations.
Other than the debate on whether or not Nikhil Advani’s comedy is funny (which it totally is,) the only major complaint that I feel needs to be addressed is Sidhu’s character arc. While I was engaged in his journey, it does seem like an odd choice on the part of the script to wait until the last 20 minutes of the film to have Sidhu discover his inner badass – especially since this was supposed to be the khiladi’s return to action. And when you compare CC2C with Akshay’s Singh is Kinng, which featured a protagonist just as stupid and clumsy as Sidhu, the difference really becomes clear. Happy Singh is dumb but he manages to pull off some badassery pretty early on in the film with some parkour around the time Katrina Kaif makes her first appearance. Happy may be a simple guy but he is the boss - Sidhu is a simple guy and he’s the butt of every joke for most of the film. People expected to see the Khiladi kick butt – not to have his butt handed to him on a plate.
Audiences who were me and not overly invested in seeing a macho Akshay could find to enjoy in his performance as Sidhu. Let me tell you something, there may not have been much butt-kicking but there were some wonderful pratfalls in CC2C. Akshay Kumar is one of those wonderful actors who uses his whole body to create a character. The hunched shoulders and resigned posture of a broken Sidhu; the manic energy of fantasy Sidhu; the final, competent Sidhu… Akshay really put everything he had into the character and I think it pays off. Unlike some of his more recent films (*cough* Housefull and Thank You) you can feel him fully present and with it in each and every scene of CC2C.
I haven’t yet really mentioned the other actors in the film but I have to admit that I have never liked Deepika Padukone more than in CC2C. You guys know I’m not her biggest fan but I felt that she fit with Nikhil Advani’s over-the-top style so much better than those more “natural” roles all the actresses are trying to do these days. I especially enjoyed Deepika’s performance as martial arts badass Meow Meow and I would gladly see her do something like that again. I thought her styling for that was especially flattering, with the long bangs and underemphasized eyes. She looked – dare I say it – quite fetching! Now, the Miss TSM character was enjoyably dippy (!) but Deepika had absolutely zero chemistry with Akshay – which is extremely unusual. Akshay Kumar is notorious for stirring up pheromones with everybody from Katrina Kaif to Bobby Deol (anyone for Dosti: Friends Forever?) but he and Deepika were like brother and sister on screen. It’s something I definitely noticed with Deepika before but it’s worth pointing out again here.
As for the rest, Ranvir Shorey as Chopstick was hilarious and he makes a great comic team with Akshay. They had the same kind of spark in Singh is Kinng. Mithun is always a welcome addition to any film; Conan Stevens played a wonderful henchman; American actor Roger Yuan was delightful and handled the over-the-top style with aplomb; and the Chinese cast were all impeccable, especially Gordon Liu as Hojo. I also want to give a shout out to Kevin Wu, who was enjoyably snotty in the minor role of Hojo’s son Frankie. From the bleached blond hair to the entitled Draco Malfoy smirk, I enjoyed catching Frankie whenever he showed up on screen. (There are no small roles, folks, only small actors.)
CC2C - perhaps inspired by Western musicals – used mostly situational songs and picturizations, with the only standalone song being the middling Shreya Ghoshal ballad “Tere Naina.” Despite this musical theater influence, Kailash Kher’s “S.I.D.H.U.” and Bappi Lahiri’s “India Se Aaya Tere Dost” still cycle through on my iPod on a fairly regular basis – the latter, especially, is apt to get stuck in my head. The big set piece song is Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s “Chandni Chowk to China,” which is a mediocre song but a fantastic picturization. The song is set in Sidhu’s fantasy-ideal of China and incorporates imagery from The Curse of the Golden Flower, Lust Caution, and Planet B-Boy.
So, is CC2C as awful a film as the initial reviews put forth? I don't think so. I did enjoy the film at the time and enjoyed it even more with the distance of a few years between me and the overblown hype machine. CC2C delivers about the same amount of action, laughs, and zany fun as Singh is Kinng but in a different package.
So, why did it tank? I think it was a case of mismatched expectations. CC2C was hyped as a big budget Hollywood-quality, hardcore masala potboiler – it would have taken the second coming of Sholay to fulfill the expectations raised. Critics took the opportunity to shit all over what they saw as brainless comedy and audiences were mostly indifferent. The heavy kung fu influence – and use of Chinese language – probably turned off a lot of the aam aadmi but at the same time, the film was too mainstream Bollywood to hook the genre film nerds who usually gobble up anything vaguely East Asian. (i.e. Kill Bill.) Nikhil Advani’s film was neither fish nor fowl but some strange brew of influences from the Far East and Further East that, in the end, was just too unpalatable for mainstream audiences... but perfect for me.
Ramesh Sippy's Chandni Chowk to China... I love you, CC2C, even if nobody else does!
The villainous Hojo (Gordon Liu)... and check out Conan back there in the top picture, standing like a badass!
Our first glimpse of Sidhu has him giving a potato the what for!
The film has a mildly subversive (and atheistic) take on creating one's own destiny... these are the things critics never pick up on because they are too busy leaving their brains at home.
Ranvir Shorey as Chopstick! You so funny!
Dada (Mithun Chakraborty) giving Sidhu a well-deserved kick in the butt.
And giving Joey (Conan Stevens) a shot to the nuts... but he takes it like a pro!
Miss TSM (Deepika Padukone!)
My favorite gag in the film - Sidhu and Chopstick are traveling to China...
"Just putting my suitcase away..."
"It's not closing...?"
"I'll just try this again..."
*faux-casually sits down*
Watch the guy in the seat behind them...
"Are you stupid?"
Filmi Girl dies laughing.
According to the ending credits, that guy's name is Asim and according to me, he's hilarious.
"Salaam-e-ishq, ishq, ishq..."
It's nice to know Nikhil Advani can laugh at himself.
Daydream song! *wavy lines wavy lines*
Curse of the Golden Flower
(Seriously, this film is my favorite of Deepika's!)
I really, really liked Dippy's Meow Meow look.
She kicked serious butt!
And had poison lipstick!
This guy was awesome - Samuel Huang, according to the credits.
FRANKIE!!!!!! Frankie needs his own movie... or at least some fanfic.
The two main villagers were really fun (Chang En Liu and Jun Li) and the picturization for "India Se Aaya Tere Dost" was totally boss because it featured this amazing comedy kung fu fight.
Seriously, guys, this kind of thing isn't easy to choreograph and I feel like CC2C and Akshay got zero credit for the comedy fights!
Another great comedy fight between Conan, Roger Yuan, and Akshay! This stuff is not as easy as they make it look!
"Churake dil meraaaaa~aaaaa... goriya chali!"
"That's MY song!"
"Churake dil meraaaaa~aaaaa... goriya chali!"
Exactly the kind of joke Western audiences wouldn't understand...
And with 20 minutes to go in the film, a competent khiladi emerges...