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