Tuesday 20 January 2009

Chandni Chowk to China (2009)

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.


malpani.!! said...

oh come on..only cos u wanted da review to be different form the other critics u decided not to bast the movie left right and centre..

how da hell is rab ne not bearable and chandni chowk is??..

and alto m a akshay kumar fan.. wasnt he over the top in the movie.. specially with the emotional scenes..!!

its january.. i can easily say its da worst movie movie of the year!..

Filmi Girl said...

The more I think about it, the more I realize that CC2C had a target audience of me. Not only will I watch Akshay Kumar read a phone book and find it fascinating, I am enamored of masala trappings and am well versed enough in both East and South Asian popular film... ;P (I loved the "Golden Flower" reference...)

I did end up emotionally invested in Sidhu, but I don't think I would have if he had been played by Salman or Ajay Devgan or someone like that. And what say you about the Ranvir Shorey/Akshay Kumar jodi? Like?

And so, in conclusion, WTF was Warner Brothers thinking?

Filmi Girl said...

And, Malpani, there is no way CC2C is worse than something like "Yuvvraaj" or "Drona" or especially "Lovestory 2050" - so give it a rest. I am sure there will be plenty of terrible films in 2009 - films much less tolerable than CC2C. C'mon VEER is coming out this year. VEER - the Salman Khan film that he wrote and where the reports have been filtering out from the set that he's been spending much of his time drunk. You really think CC2C is definitely worse than that train wreck?

malpani.!! said...

well if u're comparing from the worst of the lot.. obviously it will turn out to be a better pick..

and anyday akshay kumar a better actor compared to salman..!!

but u again neva kno.. prolly salman works his best when he's drunk..lol..

still.. whatever u guys say.. i dun have a word of appreciation for CC2C..

read my words for chandni chowk


Filmi Girl said...

well if u're comparing from the worst of the lot.. obviously it will turn out to be a better pick..

That was my point. People are saying it's the worst film ever made - conveniently forgetting about 'the worst of the lot.'

I'll check out your review. :)

Anonymous said...

You're a far, far braver person than I. Sigh. I'll have to watch this won't I? The lows you reach in your addiction.


Filmi Girl - come to my arms! You're the first person i've seen so far who hasn't tried to convince me that Veer has a chance in hell. I've seen Chandramukhi and Suryavanshi and there's no way in frickin hell this is going to end well.

Anonymous said...

You make it sound so attractive... And I had NO intention of going for this - especially after the raging headache Singh is King gave me!

ajnabi said...

Well, it's a relief it doesn't rely on Chinese stereotypes, which was my biggest concern. Still no desire to see it, even given my burgeoning pyaar for Akshay.

Filmi Girl said...

PPCC, forgive me for taking over your comment page but I've been dying to discuss CC2C and nobody wanted to do that on my review... :)

(Which is here in case anyone wants to join me there - http://filmi-girl.livejournal.com/163439.html)

@Amrita, Who has been telling you that Veer is going to be a box office success?! Have they seen the poster?! Heard the gossip that's been leaked from the sets?! Do they know that Salman wrote this himself?! Veer has CAREER KILLING FLOP written all over it - especially since Salman has not had a hit since Partner.

@Bollyviewer, if Singh is Kinng gave you a headache - DO NOT go see CC2C. There is a lot more over-the-top comedy and wacky sound effects than anything else... :)

the PPCC is a big fat idiot said...

Malpani - Ha! No, I really couldn't complain that much about this film. Rab Ne was unbearable because (1) my expectations for it were much higher, and so I had the sting of disappointment and, more importantly, (2) it was beating me over the head with a regressive, conservative message that "your husband is your God", "you should be happy being a housewife", etc...

Basically, if a film is poorly made (as Chandni Chowk to China generally is) then I might get tired of it, but only if it's really REALLY badly made. I have more of a problem with films that are badly made and have a horrible message - e.g. Bulandi is the most recent example. Since CC2C wasn't as offensive as it could have been (i.e. it didn't make a bunch of racist jokes about China), it already exceeded my (very, very low) expectations.

Filmi Girl - Aww! I can understand that if you like Akshay, this was a treat. It was really his show! The Akshay/Ranvir jodi was nice, but there wasn't too much of it... they're in Singh is King as well?

Amrita - Just lower your expectations until they're rock bottom. Actually, I wouldn't really recommend seeing this.

Bollyviewer - Nooo, no no. It was interesting from a meta perspective, but I wouldn't really recommend it.

Ajnabi - Well, gosh, if you like Akshay enough, I would rec it. As I said to FG and in the review, it's really all about him, and he is quite sweetly ridiculous.

Filmi Girl3 - Feel free to take over the comments! Debate is always great.

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

I'm with FG re: Veer. How on earth does that look watchable?

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

I love CC2C. Absolutely. So it has a few weaknesses- I love it all the more for em.


Anonymous said...

Hated CC2C by a lot. Veer, am excited about. Dats why Sallu is making films and we comment posters are not :DDDD

a ppcc representative said...

Beth - Hear, hear.

Shweta - Aww! Like the PPCC and Yuvvraaj. Love is blind!

Anonymous - But dude, if Sallu had started his career with films like Yuvvraaj and Veer, he wouldn't be the Sallu he is today. Bad is bad.

Anonymous said...

I am not a Askhay Kumar fan. But I saw this movie with my sis and her family and must say enjoyed it. I sort of expected it to be a masala movie and it was.

Some of the dialogues and scenes were really funny. The movie did flounder a bit in the middle. However I think it is more due to a weak story. I liked the Chinese actor who played Deepika's dad and his scenes with Akshay.

Agree with Swheta about CC2C.

malpani.!! said...

@ the PPCC is a big fat idiot

i dont understand this thing abt lower expectations and higher expectations judge the movie on its credits yaa..!!

u go with a negative frame of mind obviously u'll find da movie bad altho its a masterpiece..

while ghajini was so over hyped just like om shanti om was.. even people who wanted to hate the movie ended up liking it cos they were forced to like it even before the movie was released..

there are certain cinematic liberties that comes with a movie..
and rab ne had dose..
m rab ne wasnt a story set in new york.. it was in amritsar.. where such things mite even exist..
just for say the wannabe role played by srk..!!.

now if u're taking into account dose liberties when watching rab ne... and ignoring wen u're watchin cc2c.. then good for u..
CC2C is a better flick ..lol and everybody loves to hate SRK..

eliza bennet said...

As an Indian film convert from East Asian cinema viewing- I have already decided that I want to watch this:)

I like Akshay and don't mind low brow comedy.

a ppcc representative said...

Anonymous - That's interesting! I had assumed that only Akshay fans would be able to tolerate his antics in this, since it was quite goofball and OTT. I definitely agree that Deepika's dad was really great! I hope to see more of him!

malpani - Good point about expectations - though I guess it's hard not to let preconceived notions (even just "This is going to be a screwball comedy" and being presented with a melodrama) color your judgment of a film... at least a little. What do you mean by "cinematic liberties", though? If that means the liberty to send a regressive message in your film ("your husband is your God") - then yes, Aditya Chopra has every right to do that, I agree that conservative couples probably do exist in Amritsar (as everywhere) and so such a message would resonate with them, but I'm a liberal progressive (or try to be at least) and so am pretty much guaranteed to criticize an overly conservative message in a film. That's regardless of whether it's well-presented, as in Jab Jab Phool Khile - a film I enjoy as a cinephile, but disapprove of as a feminist/modernist/whatever. The problem with Rab Ne was that it was a conservative message that was presented poorly - it just didn't make sense that SRK's Raj would go to all that trouble wooing his wife only to then demand she love SRK's Surinder. (And don't worry, the PPCC loves SRK... though Rab Ne definitely shook the foundations of our love.)

CC2C main message seemed to be "only you can make something of yourself" and "hard work reaps rewards" - a message I'm fine with - and it presented it in a generally acceptable way (it just followed the usual quest pattern found in any number of kung fu movies, etc.). The only problem, then, that I had with CC2C was that it just didn't capture me - I didn't laugh or cry when the film wanted me to, some of the antics were alienatingly goofy, the songs were generally mediocre, and so on.

eliza bennet - You'll probably pick up a lot more references than me! Enjoy.

malpani.!! said...

whoa..!!.. dat was something to convince me..!!

agreed.. :) but still hated CC2C.. lol..!!

katiekateBKLN said...

As an Akshay Kumar fan, I saw CC2C this weekend and dragged friends that had never seen a B-wood flick, and our consensus was the same: it was funny! AK is a great physical comedian! Come on, the Dance Master 9 bit with the mulitude of film dances!?

The spoofs and references were so fast and furious for the first hour, you knew the movie couldn't keep it up. The romance and the songs/picturizations were weak, and I thought they waited too long to have Akki emerge as his bad ass self, but it certainly wasn't as bad as a lot of Bwood. What about JaanE Mann, to pull something out of the dust bin?

Unknown said...

Because of Bhool Bulaiya and Welcome I'll forgive Akshay for this trespass.