One of the most persistent legends about the Chinese martial arts is that their world-famous crowning glory, shaolin kwan (Shaolin temple boxing), was actually invented by a visitor from India. Admittedly, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the story began to get around that in the mid-500s C.E., during a sojourn at the Shaolin Monastery in the northeastern Chinese province of Henan, the itinerant Indian monk Bodhidharma devised a set of strengthening exercises to help the lethargic monks stay focused during long sessions of meditation. These exercises later evolved into the world’s most admired regime of acrobatic fisticuffs. (Bodhidharma must have been a busy fellow: He is also the credited founder of Zen Buddhism.)
The Bodhidharma myth lends pleasing symmetry to this 21st-century Bollywood expedition to China for a martial-arts/song-and-dance crossover — a landmark collaboration between the Mainland and the Subcontinent, mediated by Warner Bros. Alas, Chandni Chowk to China, directed by Nikhil Advani (who made the great Kal Ho Naa Ho), is asymmetrical in the extreme: shapeless, shameless and slapdash. Sizable chunks of it were actually filmed in Thailand, and much of the rest could have been shot anywhere; on a back-lot Chinese village set in Sylmar, or in front of a blue screen to be replaced by the skyline of Beijing.
CC2C (as it’s called in India) is based very loosely on the life of its leading man, the late-blooming superstar Akshay Kumar, a former chef and martial-arts instructor who was actually raised in the eponymous Chandni Chowk district, a market area of Old Delhi that has salt-of-the-earth, lower-middle-class implications. Though he’s of the same late-’80s generation of male stars as the Three Khans (Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh), Kumar wasn’t seen as being in the same league until relatively recently, when the 2000 Hera Pheri (Monkey Business) marked a shift in his persona, from an action star with a likable goofy streak to a full-blown clown, bringing him a whole new level of celebrity. (He’s said to be especially popular with kids.)
Kumar’s devotion to the Chinese martial arts is apparently sincere. (In 2004, he hosted the series Seven Deadly Arts on National Geographic’s Asia channel.) Yet, it is CC2C’s central failure that Advani and company barely interact at all with the culture they supposedly set out to celebrate. There’s no possibility of China/India fusion because the twain barely meet. The desi visitors always seem to be on top of a hill or a mountain looking down at something, a village or a forest or a city, without ever entering into it. The same three or four locations (in particular a single dusty section of the Great Wall — if that’s really what it is) are re-explored so often that our sense of their exotic charm evaporates.
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The drama that plays out in front of this matte-painting backdrop is a mélange of Old School masala movie clichés decorated with some flashes of minty-fresh foolishness: Kumar’s childlike Sidhu is a Chandni Chowk kitchen assistant who has some impressive God of Cookery–style slicing-and-dicing moves. So it isn’t a total stretch when a couple of Chinese villagers show up in the neighborhood, insisting that the cook is the reincarnation of an ancient warrior who alone can defend their village against the glowering, bowler-hatted and apparently motiveless tyrant Hojo (played with tree-trunk steadiness by Gordon Liu/Lau Kar-fei, a kung-fu icon from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin to Kill Bill). Sidhu consults his personal deity, a rescued potato in the shape of the Hindu deity Ganesha, and naturally decides to make the trip.
From there, so much outrageousness is piled on that CC2C quickly becomes enervating. There’s nothing even vaguely normal around for the weirdness to stand out against. We get cartoonish flying and fighting effects out of Kung Fu Hustle. We get a set of twins separated at birth, one good, the other evil (both played by anime-eyed ingénue Deepika Padukone). We get their rock-jawed father (Roger Yuen), once a decorated PRC police officer, now an amnesiac mop-headed beggar living in a cave under the Wall. And we get a series of increasingly cacophonous and cluttered group-grope fight sequences, which have almost none of the grace and precision that bring the best such scenes close to uplifting song and dance — something a Bollywood filmmaker, of all people, should have been able to grasp.
We know full well that Bollywood is a cinema of excess rather than restraint, that it exults in piling on every last thing its auteurs can think of. Its limitless generosity in shoveling out entertainment is one reason we love it. But trim, tight storylines like the ones favored by the classic action genres, such as the Western and the kung-fu film, have been incorporated many times into the bulging masala movie format: in the revenge movies that the screenwriting team of Salim-Javed created for Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s (Zanjeer, Sholay, et al.), and, more recently, in the gangster films of Mani Rathnam and Ram Gopal Varma. There’s a classic “training for revenge” story concealed under a spare tire of self-indulgent body fat in CC2C, but its setups and payoffs are barely within shouting distance of each other.
If you’re going to kick somebody with those feet, yaar, you’ve got to be able to see them when you look down.