Triple Schezwan Fried Rice may sound like a Chinese dish, but it is in fact uniquely Indian. A bizarre concoction of fried rice topped with crispy noodles, chicken in a spicy sauce and then finished with a sunny-side up egg on top, it is surely has a place next to deep-fried Snickers bars and Turducken in the Food Oddities hall of fame. The ‘Triple’ is not a dish for the faint of the heart or the unadventurous eater, and now, at long last, we have a cinematic equivalent to it.
In Chandni Chowk to China (the kids call it CC2C), Akshay Kumar plays Sidhu, a perennially unlucky cook in Delhi’s bustling Chandni Chowk area, who will try anything to leapfrog his way to a life of ease, except, that is, hard work. But Sidhu’s life is about to change in ways he had never ever dreamed: convinced that he’s the reincarnation of a great Chinese warrior, two villagers from an oppressed village near the Great Wall spirit him and his opportunistic friend/translator/guru Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey) away to China. Sidhu thinks he’s off to a life of luxury and qipao-clad, fan-waving Chinese hotties, but what Chopstick has neglected to tell him is that the villagers expect the gullible cook to defeat the evil Hojo (Gordon Liu), a kingpin figure who’s kept the village under his thumb (as well as his blade-rimmed boomerang bowler hat).
“But wait,” I hear you say, “this plot is too simple! Surely they had space in a two-and-a-half-hour film to include a pair of long-lost twins, an amnesiac father, a James Bond Q-Branch spoof and a potato shaped vaguely like Ganesha?”
Why yes, of course they did.
This plethora of plot points would be fine, were they handled well, but the film never settles into an even tone. One minute it’s a cartoon, the next a do-or-die underdog story, and frequently — and annoyingly — a weepy melodrama. This might be the only Kung-Fu movie with a higher tear count than body count. In my ideal world C2CC would have toned down the endless flashbacks and voiceovers and concentrated on the over-the-top comedy. What’s there is generally well done, with some excellent sight gags and corny dialogues. The action is decent too, and wire-work is kept to a minimum, but used well for comic effect now and then. A special mention should be made here of Deepika Padukone who plays twins Sakhi and Meow-Meow (yes, Meow-Meow). She’s not the deepest or most charismatic of actresses (yet), but man can she pull off a convincing screen fight.
Like most Indian films, the term ‘broad comedy’ is interpreted as ‘loud and shrill’ — this is a film with rarely a quiet moment, and the sound mix is amped up to be heard well only on deformed village megaphones. Subtlety was never going to be on the menu in a Kung-fu Bollywood crossover, but a little dash would have helped this dish immensely.
Alas, such shrillness extends to the performances too. This is the first Akshay Kumar movie in which his usual goofy big-hearted simpleton character is not only unlikeable, but downright annoying. Alternately weepy and cantankerous, Sidhu is certainly a prime candidate for a makeover into a noble village-saving hero, but not only did I not care for him, I wasn’t bowled over by his inevitable turn to the path of good. It’s not even that he’s a rogue; he’s a lazy buffoon, an Ugly Indian at home and abroad. And don’t even get me started on Chopstick (whose angelic conscience is dressed as an Indian, and his devil as a stereotypical Yellow Peril type), or the blackface Chinese midgets that show up at the end (supposedly representing Africans). Such kinds of embarrassing casual racism has always been a part of Indian movies — hell, it’s still a part of Indian life — but to see it still crop up in a movie that attempts to be a launchpad for Bollywood in the international arena (it’s distributed by Warner Bros) is sad indeed.
Chandni Chowk to China is by no means a good movie. It’s too long, too unfocused, needs a couple more drafts of script to plug a bucket of plot holes, and takes itself too seriously. But there’s still a lot to like here, and while its grasp has obviously exceeded its reach, it’s entertaining. Morbidly so, at times, but entertaining nonetheless. I’d scarcely recommend this movie for people unfamiliar with Bollywood, but like Triple Schezwan Fried Rice, it’s a curiosity that should at least be considered.