Feature: Chandni Chowk to China
Mon, 19 Jan 2009 13:08:15
Nikhil Advani, director of the Bollywood/kung fu comedy hybrid Chandni Chowk to China, proudly points out how easy it will be for American audiences to see the Warner Bros.-produced movie. "We've got the highest U.S. screen release ever for a Bollywood film: 130 screens, and counting," he says of the film, which was shot in India, Thailand, and China. "You will not need to travel an hour to see a Bollywood film. It will be at the multiplex."
The movie's title refers to the likeably loony character Sidhu's literal and spiritual journey from Delhi's Chandni Chowk district to his unexpected destiny in China. But it also reflects how the movie itself transgresses the song/dance/drama conventions of a typical Bollywood-genre production. Advani enticed Indian action superstar Akshay Kumar with the promise that the movie would put a spin on the usual formula, by making kung fu an integral part of the story and by including martial arts actors from China and Hong Kong.
Kumar, whose often slapstick-silly performance as Sidhu is at odds with his leading-man good looks in person, says the movie's dance numbers were more difficult for him than the fighting scenes. "Because I've trained myself in martial arts, to do fighting is a little bit easier than dancing," he says. "I can't dance to help myself. When I dance, it looks as if I'm fighting!"
In a casting coup that delighted both Kumar and Advani, legendary Chinese martial-arts master Gordon Liu—best known to American audiences for his roles in both installments of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill—agreed to play the village-terrorizing gangster Hojo. "I remember when I called Akshay and said Gordon was going to play Hojo," Advani says. "He got excited and said he learned martial arts because of Gordon Liu."
Advani recalls that when he failed to introduce Kumar to his longtime idol on their first shooting day together, Kumar "comes to me like a small child and says, 'You didn't introduce me to Gordon Liu, you've got to introduce me!' So I went and introduced him. Even Mithun [Chakraborty], who plays Akshay's adopted father, was a huge fan."
Advani was struck by the difference between the "soft and gentle" off-screen Liu and the actor's intimidating on-screen presence. "He sits so quietly, you feel that he can't harm a fly. And then you put the camera on, and he becomes this ruthless killer. It's amazing the way he transforms on-screen."
Like the character he plays in the movie, Kumar was once a waiter and a cook. He says he had posters featuring his "three favorite people" on a wall where he worked. "One was Sridevi, that's a so-called Indian actress, a very big actress. Then I had Sylvester Stallone, and I had [Liu's] 36th Chamber of Shaolin,'" he says. "And, surprise of my life as to how life could change, I have worked with all three of them. I'm so shocked. I just sometimes keep on thinking, 'Why didn't I keep more posters?' Maybe that was a very magical wall."
A huge production number that takes place in Beijing's Forbidden City was shot at a completely convincing studio mockup—one that Advani says was actually bigger than the real thing. But scenes that take place on the Great Wall of China were filmed on location at the actual wall. Asked how difficult it was to get permission to film there, Advani says, "You have no idea." Kumar says the filmmakers were very lucky to get the opportunity. "We finished 15 days' work in only seven days, because we only had seven days' permission."
Kumar's co-star in the movie is Indian supermodel Deepika Padukone, who plays both Sidhu's gorgeous dream girl Sakhi and Sakhi's evil but equally gorgeous twin sister Suzy. "She just came into this industry about two years back, and didn't know anything about martial arts," Kumar says. "But she practiced for five months, she practiced so much. And I think you'll see that she's done a brilliant job."
Asked if he was able to identify with his character Sidhu, who is both a loser and a winner in the movie, Kumar smiles. "I've been both. I have done 120 films by now, in 18 years of my career, in which 70 of them are flops. So I've played both. I rank this film as my best."
Now that he has appeared with Liu in this movie, Sridevi in Meri Biwi Ka Jawab Nahin, and Stallone in the upcoming Kambakkht Ishq, Kumar is asked which of his other favorite actors he hopes to have as co-stars someday. Although reluctant to reveal any names, he says, "I'm going back to that magic wall and putting [up] some more posters."