Chandni Chowk to China

[16 January 2009]

By Renée Scolaro Mora

Leftovers

The official website for Chandni Chowk to China looks like a restaurant menu: “The Ingredients” links to the Cast and Crew listing, “Video Wok” provides videos and trailers, and “Noodle Notes” marks the Production Blog. The synopsis comes under the heading “Original Recipe,” a cute but unfortunate misnomer. Touted as the first ever Bollywood Kung Fu comedy, Chandni Chowk to China employs a decidedly hackneyed storyline, a mash-up of the two genres that doesn’t result in anything new.

Sidhu (Ashkay Kumar) is a simple, unlucky cook at his adoptive father’s vegetable stand in Chandni Chowk in Delhi, India, searching for excitement and meaning in his life. Bad luck besets him, to the point that, even when he wins the lottery, he’s so exuberant in bowing before an altar that he catches the winning ticket on fire. Card readers and wise men want nothing to do with him, save for Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey), a Chinese translator and scam artist who sees in Sidhu an easy target. Sidhu’s father Dada (Mithun Chakraborty) rescues him from his many mishaps, dishing out advice like, “You can never escape your destiny,” as well as giving Sidhu a literal kick in the pants that sends him sailing over the city trailing smoke. Nevertheless, Sidhu keeps trying to discover his destiny and escape the monotony of cutting vegetables day in and day out.

He finally gets his opportunity when two strangers from China, convinced Sidhu is the reincarnation of the ancient warrior Liu Sheng, come to Chandni Chowk to enlist his help in ridding their village of Hojo (Gordon Liu), a tyrannical smuggler (who recalls Oddjob from Goldfinger, cutting down his enemies with his razor-rimmed bowler hat). Of course, Sidhu doesn’t speak Chinese, so the strangers trust Chopstick to interpret for them. He leaves out the part about killing Hojo, instead telling Sidhu of the adoration, women, and riches that await him in China as the reborn Liu Sheng. What follows is not unlike what we saw in Tropic Thunder, Kung Fu Panda or even The Three Amigos: the hero is unwittingly thrown in real danger, survives through dumb luck, then realizes what’s going on and must make a decision, whether to cut and run or rise to the occasion. 

Chandni Chowk to China tries to complicate this familiar narrative with a secondary storyline concerning the beautiful Sakhi (Deepika Padukone). Like Sidhu, she’s making the trip from Chandni Chowk to China, also seeking her roots. Sidhu believes his Indian identity to be insignificant (Chopstick tells him he was a mosquito in his past life) and so he is eager to appropriate a Chinese identity as the reincarnated Liu Sheng. Sakhi, on the other hand, is legitimately tied to China not only through her father, but also economically, as the Indian spokesperson for a Chinese company Tele Shoppers Media (TSM), hawking their silly gadgets on Indian television. Ironically, in India, she is only referred to as “Miss TSM,” and it’s only when she’s in China that she is identified by her Indian name. (It’s worth mentioning that the film further emphasizes the idea of shifting identities by casting Padukone both as Sakhi and the Chinese Meow Meow).

Other characters also raise questions about identity. Chopstick alternately cashes in on his Indian background or the fact that his mother was part Chinese, depending on the situation. This as the Chinese villagers see their collective mythic history reconfigured in India. Even Sakhi’s father Chiang (Roger Yuan), a Chinese police officer, willingly invests in an Indian solution to his own problem by training Sidhu to fight Hojo rather than doing it himself, even though he has ample reason to want revenge, not to mention that he is a Kung Fu master.

As odd as the combination might sound,  Bollywood and Kung Fu make sense together here, since nationalism and identity are themes traditionally explored in both genres. Chandni Chowk to China stylistically slides in and out of each of these filmmaking traditions, with the characters alternately performing amazing martial arts fight sequences (choreographed by Huen Chiu-Ku, who also worked on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and breaking into elaborate song and dance routines. That the movie makes these transitions so conspicuously makes it entertaining as well as, in its way, educational.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/69126-chandni-chowk-to-china/