Friday, September 11, 2009

Chandni Chowk to China

In his essay "Production style in Handel operas"* the great Handel scholar Winton Dean makes a telling point about the musical and dramatic integrity of Handel's operas. He writes,

"...by so placing the arias that they simultaneously advanced the plot and developed the characters, facet by facet,...Handel ensured that the opera, far from falling into detached segments, was in continuous fluid motion....The organization is so taut, and the equilibrium between the musical, dramatic and scenic components so nicely balanced, that almost any cut weakens the design. As a result, the duration appears longer, not shorter, when cuts are made..." (p. 253)

The point applies to movies, too: when a film is made up of disjointed set pieces strung together with voice-overs or onscreen titles, it can seem much longer than its actual running time. In Chandni Chowk to China (2009), director Nikhil Advani and editor Aarif Sheikh make this basic error, and so the movie feels both endless and completely uninvolving.

The plot isn't really worth summarizing in detail. Sidhu (Akshay Kumar), a cook, is proclaimed to be the reincarnation of the ancient Chinese warrior Liu Sheng, and travels to China to save a village that has been turned into a forced-labor camp by the evil Hojo. Along the way he encounters twin sisters (Deepika Padukone in a double role) who were separated at birth; Sakhi, raised in India, and Suzy (aka Meow Meow), raised by Hojo after he killed their father. Or so everyone believes: when Sidhu is rescued by (spoiler alert!) an amnesiac vagrant who looks amazingly similar to Sakhi's and Suzy's father (i.e., he hasn't aged a day in 20 years; neither has Hojo or his chief henchman), we can see exactly where the movie is heading. And many, many fight scenes (and almost no songs) later the movie finally gets there.

Akshay can't do much with the role of Sidhu, which oscillates between annoying slapstick and--despite Akshay's own real-life martial arts training--unconvincing fight scenes. (Doesn't anyone among the criminal hordes own a gun?) Deepika, who looks great as both Sakhi and Suzy, is largely wasted. Not only are both of her characters reduced at the end of the movie to watching Sidhu admiringly, there are hardly any dance numbers in the last two-thirds of the movie (one in particular has obviously been abruptly truncated). The script reels from incoherence to obviousness and back again.

I don't like to give bad reviews, and so I probably would simply have let this one go without writing about it. But in my view Chandni Chowk to China exemplifies certain current trends in Bollywood. As American money starts to flood in (Chandni Chowk to China was distributed internationally by Warner Brothers), it seems that Bollywood filmmakers are going to find themselves under pressure to reduce running times, keep dialogue scenes short and uncomplicated (i.e. cliché-ridden), limit the number of songs, and include English tag lines and choruses in the music. Some of these trends predate American studio involvement (Dhoom 2 (2006) comes to mind), but they will likely be accelerated by the influx of American cash.

So, unfortunately, we're likely to see many more movies like Chandni Chowk to China in the months and years to come. As Anupama Chopra reported earlier this year in The New York Times, "Warner Brothers has a dozen projects in the pipeline, including two more with Nikhil Advani..." On the evidence of Chandni Chowk to China, that's not a very appealing prospect.

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* from The Cambridge Companion to Handel (Donald Burrows, ed., Cambridge University Press, 1997)

4 comments:

  1. I think the mix of Hollywood money with Bollywood is going to produce a lot more films with the quality of CC2C before things settle into balance.

    If HW was smart, they would already be distributing the shorter "art-housey" films that translate well already - films like 99, which is perfectly accessible to both markets.

    Instead we get Hollywood execs trying to cram the omnibus entertainer that Mumbai produces so well into something they can understand.

    Does it mean nothing to these people that the Bollywood formula developed over the years works perfectly well in the markets it produces for?

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  2. Filmi Girl, thanks for your comment! We can only hope that the Hollywood types will start to look for smaller-scale and more offbeat projects to fund. But so far, they seem to be fixated on potential blockbusters like Saawariya and this one, which have fizzled both artistically and commercially.

    CC2C seemed to bear the imprint of much post-production meddling in a failed attempt to make it more palatable to Western audiences. You make the excellent point, though, that Bollywood films already work perfectly well on their own terms. According to BoxOfficeIndia.com, among the all-time top ten Indian films at the box office in the UK and North America are Om Shanti Om, Veer-Zaara, Singh is Kinng, Jodhaa Akhbar, Devdas, and Fanaa. While not all of these films would make my list of favorites, none of them make the sort of concessions to imagined Western viewers that so mar CC2C.

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  3. I haven't seen this, and nothing I've read about it makes me want to see it. And I'm sick of saying this: I wish Akshay made better films! He's too talented to waste his career on what he's been doing of late. :(

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  4. BollywoodFan, I'm a bit puzzled by Akshay's choices, too. Like Aamir and SRK, he's clearly in a position to work on fewer and better projects. But in the last six years he's appeared in 32 films.

    In the same time span SRK's appeared in 20 movies (half of which are special appearances, item numbers or voiceovers) and Aamir's appeared in only 6 (and that's counting 3 Idiots). I too wish that Akshay would start concentrating on quality over quantity.

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