The huge film industry in India has been relegated to the margins in America, but periodically we’re told that some new “Bollywood” offering will have crossover appeal here.
The latest such picture is “Chandni Chowk to China,” a zany Bollywood extravaganza that blends broad physical comedy, romance, martial arts and music. It’s getting a bigger release, via Warner Bros., than any previous Indian import.
Why this one? Not sure, but this is definitely a hoot. Maybe it’s because most of the film is set in the realm of a super-silly kung fu movie.
Our hero is a mush-brained underachiever named Sidhu, played by a leading light of Bollywood, Akshay Kumar. A humble vegetable chef in the crowded Chandni Chowk section of Delhi, he senses his fortunes turning when he discovers a potato with the image of the god Ganesh in it.
Through a tortured set of circumstances, this leads him to be mistaken for the reincarnation of a Chinese warrior. He is whisked away to a village near the Great Wall, the better to rid the locals of their cruel nemesis (martial-arts veteran Gordon Liu, from the “Kill Bill” movies), who uses his bowler hat as Oddjob did in “Goldfinger”: as an aeronautic beheading device.
But wait, there’s more. On the road to China, Sidhu meets a TV model (Deepika Padukone) who is journeying to pay a tribute to her half-sister and father, who (we know early on) are probably not as dead as she thinks they are.
Fights and songs break up the story. After rocketing along for an hour or so as a comedy, the movie veers off into melodrama, as Sidhu must pick himself off the mat and take care of business.
There is much nonsense to savor along the way: Sidhu’s ability to fly vast distances through the air when kicked in the backside, or a pair of false lips intended to produce an acid kiss. And there’s a nice moment when other characters are speaking Chinese and Sidhu asks his translator: “Mmm, subtitles?”
At 21/2 hours, the movie’s too long, but Indian epics tend to sprawl. Padukone is beautiful (in two roles), Kumar is a spirited clown, and the musical numbers are as ridiculous as you’d hope.
It’s all as far-fetched as “Slumdog Millionaire,” a movie (not a Bollywood product, but set in India) that takes itself much more seriously. This one won’t win any Oscars, and thankfully it doesn’t try to.