Sunday, July 10, 2011

Chandni Chowk to China: Jane Kaun Hoon Samajh Aaye Na

[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.

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!)

Lust Caution!

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...


Amaluu said...

I am so glad you covered this movie - I absolutely LOVED it, and that coming from someone who can't stand Akshay Kumar. I generally find him annoying and hate his acting style, but I loved this movie in spite of him. It was like a live-action Kung Fu Panda w/ a Bollywood spin. WIN. And I too generally don't care much about Deepika but really liked her as Meow Meow. I'm so glad you mentioned that scene on the plane too, that was my favorite as well.

Why didn't people like this? It was so fun! A cross between Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Hustle ... and ... I don't know. But it was great!

Sal said...

I think Indian audiences generally don't like films that are "clever-stupid" as opposed to just plain stupid (and I don't make this distinction in a condescending way since I know that you and millions of people enjoy the films of the latter variety). For instance, Tashan (which I LOVED) and CC2C, which I am not a fan of but give lots of credit to for being detailed and having a distinct sense of humor that is full of references and nods, are both films that have an approach to illogical masala that winks at and subverts itself, making the audiences and a majority of reviewers in India feel like they are not in on the joke, which rankles because, hey, this is a brainless masala movie, how dare it feel like more than that. Something like Singh is Kinng, on the other hand, is silly and brainless in a very straightforward way, so audiences can enjoy its uncomplicated joys and say, "that was a great time-pass movie." This could have something to do with the fact that irony and satire have never been part of the mainstream, big-budget movie tradition in Bollywood. The Indian audience, in my opinion, generally requires the pleasures of the masala movie to be simple, standard and not obscure or coded in any way. Also, I think that a large portion of the audiences have been uncomfortable with fully realized universes in mainstream Bollywood fare. They want their films to be rooted in a reality, even if it is the standard Bollywood movie reality. Hence, something like Saawariya or No Smoking or Guzaarish, with its baroque costumery, or Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, with its Broadway-style pageantry and snarky humor, seem illogical to them, while they are perfectly willing to embrace and accept lapses in logic in something like Ready, just because those lapses are a familiar trope, a familiar reality.

Ness said...

MAN I love CC2C and not JUST because Akki looks smokin hot in it. This review reminds me I'm looooong overdue for a rewatch. Heh, we have such similar taste in many underappreciated "duds".

Jess said...

I loved this movie! I wish Akshay had gotten to kick butt sooner in the film, but his fake beer gut was pretty great. The movie had everything I like about Bollywood and everything I like about cheesy Kung Fu movies, and tons of great in-jokes. It also had a female lead kick some serious ass. Awesome.

Yunus Perveez said...

The Perfect movie to write about in your "Box Office Poison" section as this movie seriously is poisonous.
I was one of those guys REALLY looking forward to CC2C. Akshay doing Kung Fu, an international release, a pre-Ranbhir Deepika, how could that go wrong.
It was the movie that has spiralled Akshay career into what it is now and the hate he gets for the choices he keeps on making is completely deserved I feel.
Always having a soft spot for underdog Akshay, I've reached the point where a new release of his doesn't even illicit excitement from me. When I do catch his movies months after the scathing reviews and the hate has died down, I have only been dissapointed (we can hate on critics as much as we want but has any of his last 10 movies even got a half decent review? And after great openings the BO always fizzles out too meaning, the public doenst like his movies either and bad word of mouth kills them)

But getting back to CC2C specifically,I can agree humour is subjective, for me it didnt work and there was not a moment I even cracked a smile. But ok as you know, I'm not a fan of slap stick. I prefer dialogue driven comedy, probably why I still prefer Mr and Mrs Khiladi and Hera Pheri as Akshay's comedies.

But what I really couldnt forgive was the action being SO bad. Lot of wire work (something Bollywood has never truly mastered), CGI comedy training montages (his dad had been killed but even then the director couldnt leave the comedic tone) that made no sense and just the general lack of effort (akshay couldnt get fat or buff for the role of a martial artists?) and excitement. I dont think the comparision with Kung Fu Panda works as even though they both use the same tropes of old school martial arts movies, CC2C doesnt manage to show us anything new.
As a martial arts afficianado I was soreley dissapointed. and because the comedy didnt work; i was left with nothing.

The production values were high, you had a star that can actually handle and likes action segments and you have a very pretty looking Deepika. I can only lay the blame on Nikhil Advani and the directorial choices he makes. I dont say this often, but dude needs to quit making movies. and Akshay needs to purge these guys from his friends list(together with Anees Baznee) so we can start getting the old Akshay back and not the one we have had for the last couple of years, that's only going for the easy pay check.
Something you forgot to mention maybe or gave a pass to is, there is also some mild racism in the movie which I didnt agree with (mysoginy, racism are themes that have become recurrent since in Akshay movies after CC2C ie Kambakth Ishq, Thank You, housefull)

But above anything this movie was just a waste of such a great opportunity and if it had a better director with a clearer vision of what he wanted, this could have been great.

I did love Tashan though, probably the last movie of Akshay I truly liked. looking forward to your review of that!


Filmi Girl said...

@amaluu It's so rare that we agree on an Akshay film! :)

@Sal That is a VERY interesting point about the self-contained worlds in masala films... I'll have to think on it more. I definitely agree that critics will either rag on or praise anything they don't understand - depending on what the existing consensus is.

And your theory does explain why the horrifically dull and stupid Race did so well when the much more clever and entertaining Tashan only found a small number of fans.

@Ness and Jess... :)

@Asim See, I think your opinion must have been the majority opinion of the audiences. I happen to enjoy Nikhil Advani's humor (and did so again in Patiala House, another bomb) but I do agree that CC2C would have stood a better chance at the box office if somebody had reigned him in.

Sal said...

@ Filmi Girl: GAH! RACE! One of the most unashamedly idiotic, awful films of all time. Your next series should be "THIS was a hit???? *facepalm*" and Race can flag it off.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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