Now the PPCC is not going to bash Chandni Chowk to China (CC2C), as other critics have, because the film did one thing well: it managed not to rely on an endless series of Chinese stereotype jokes. Our expectations were pretty low and we were just so relieved that no one started blurting out over-the-top fake Mandarin that we could almost - almost - like the movie. Couple that with some off-beat film references - including Lust, Caution!!! - and we can conclude: Chandni Chowk to China is not very good, even by low-brow spoof masala standards (we just weren't that emotionally invested in it, nor did we find it that funny), but it is also not that bad. Anyway, kung fu is always fun.
Filmi Girl noted that it is bewildering that Warner Bros. chose to use this as its hyped-up, heavily advertised, Bollywood-for-Americans vehicle. It is, after all, chock-full of self-references that assume a long cultural memory of both Hindi and Hong Kong cinema. The typical American viewer weened on Monsoon Wedding for "Bollywood" and Kill Bill for "kung fu" is not going to pick up many of these. So why sell this to the mainstream American audience? Well, it dawned on the PPCC that this film's story type - the epic hero, the quest pattern, the loner seeking vengeance, the unlikely hero "making it" - is characteristic of the kung fu genre (which this film spoofs) and has had a historical appeal among American audiences too. CC2C is thus not really masala by the usual definition - there are no brothers, no corruption, and no mothers. Instead, we follow the slow, painful transformation of the loser vegwallah, Sidhu (Akshay Kumar), into a lean, mean, fighting machine. The film even has a particularly un-masala moral: Believe in yourself! Make your own destiny! It's not who you were in a past life or where you were born, it's what you make of yourself here and now!
This is the Lust, Caution parody bit. Just look at this! Don't agree with us? Then you are BANNED FROM THE PPCC FOREVER.
This is in stark contrast to the more typical masala convention of reinforcing dharmic obligations and a hero ultimately conforming to his righteous, moral place in the social hierarchy (or an anti-hero reforming himself towards the same aim). How many times have we watched sighing lovers be separated thanks to caste, religion or just plain parental whimsy? How many individuals have we seen swallowed up by the community? Sidhu instead has no such problems. He's almost entirely free of ties (his only family being a kindly man who adopted him, played by Mithun Chakraborty) and hence can make his own destiny, picking himself up by his bootstraps and generally following a heroic pattern more typically found in American films. The question of whether Sidhu is really the One, in the same way iconic Western heroes like Neo, Frodo, Harry or Luke were the Ones, that is, the reincarnation of an ancient Chinese warrior, is the driving force of the narrative but also, interestingly, left ambiguous. Or maybe we just forgot. Anyway, the point is that Sidhu doesn't inherit heroic powers or, for that matter, a whole load of responsibilities and family ties in the same way a masala hero would. Instead, Sidhu regularly shirks his "dharmic role" of lowly vegwallah and seeks a number of get-rich-quick schemes with the local Chandni Chowk palm readers, Sufi mystics and, of course, the conniving Chopstick (Ranvir Shorey). The tragedy that propels Sidhu on his vengeful kung fu path is not, as in masala, something that happens to his family in the prologue when he was too young to do anything about it. Instead, the tragedy happens indirectly because of present-day Sidhu's present-day choices: it's his own fault and only he can fix things and he has to fix them now!
CC2C does have a few superficial trappings of old school masala, though, as there are the usual extreme swings between extreme emotions (melodrama! slapstick comedy! dishoom dishoom!) and there is also, yes, a pair of twins separated at birth (Meow-Meow the evil vamp and Sakhi the cute advertising girl, both played by Deepika Padukone). This leads to some very masala-esque family reunions. But the heart of the film is much more individualistic a la Ayn Rand (an oddly popular reading choice among some Hindi actors, we keep noticing!) than old school masala. Just as Sidhu doesn't have the obligations of dharma, community and family, he also doesn't have their help: he has to literally make himself what he is from scratch.
Despite all this, we expect that trying to sell CC2C to the mainstream American audience will be like trying to sell Slumdog Millionaire to the mainstream Indian audience. Both films contain an essentially familiar core (self-made hero for CC2C, two warring brothers and happy endings for Slumdog) sold in a completely unfamiliar package (zany masala comedy for CC2C, trendy hipster aesthetics in Slumdog). We don't expect either to do well outside of their primary target audience.
But here's something the target audience can enjoy: CC2C is also chock-full of (sometimes mindblowing!) references. For example, the tongue-in-cheek referencing to the shared socialism of historical Sino-Indian relations. The ancient Chinese hero Sidhu is believed to be a reincarnation of, Liu Sheng, is iconically captured with a hammer in one hand and a sickle in the other as he defeats the oncoming foreign hoards. Later in the film, Sidhu picks up another hammer and sickle and calls out to the Chinese villain, Dojo (Gordon Liu): "Arre, bhaiyya! Hindi-Chini bhai bhai!"
There were also loads of film references, and so for those of you who have been pining for the day when Akshay Kumar would do his best impression of Rekha's Salaam-e-ishq dance (we know it's not just us!), here's your chance. More interesting were the references to non-Hindi cinema. The villainous Dojo, with his flying bowler hat of DOOM, is a direct tribute to Oddjob and his evil hat from the James Bond series (and we were then reminded of the Odd Job parody in Austin Powers: "I mean, who throws a shoe?!"). Chinese culture was also reference: for example, the whole warrior with the baby scene, featured in Three Kingdoms, Red Cliff and ancient Chinese literature. Another example: in the title song, Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone find themselves first in the flower-laden Forbidden City - site of several wuxia epics and, we reckon, a direct homage to Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower - and then they zip off to a wartime Shanghai street corner, dressed in identical costumes to Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Wei Tang from Ang Lee's recent Lust, Caution. Lust, Caution, for the love of God! A Hindi film just referenced Lust, Caution! Excuse us while we pick up our jaw off the floor.
Akshay Kumar in a wickedly unglamorous, unselfconscious role.
Akshay Kumar is really the main attraction of a film like this, as it's a tailor-made star vehicle for all his wacky charisma (and real-life martial arts skillz). So basically: if you dislike Akshay Kumar or don't know who he is, you'll probably find CC2C quite trashy and torturous. If you like Akshay Kumar (as we do!) you'll find CC2C quite trashy but tolerable. We haven't seen much Akshay, but everything we have seen has showcased his earnest sweetness with a dash of dolt (Welcome, Tashan, the little of Dil To Pagal Hai we could bear to watch...). We had to give Akshay full props for giving a real paisa vasool performance (what's the industry word for it? full eighteen reels?) and, importantly, not shying away from the unglamorous bits. Sidhu is a drooling, farting idiot in a fatsuit (that was definitely a fatsuit - just watch the drunken song!) for much of the film, and if we had seen one more string of saliva or dripping nose of weepiness... well, we would have been grossed out. But we also had to admit: damn, the man is pulling out all stops, and he doesn't care if he looks like an idiot. Which of course only endears him more to the audience! He only really cleans up in the last thirty minutes of the film, but we at the PPCC don't need to root only for prettiness. We were with him all the way, the silly goof, whether his underpants were showing or not.