Multicultural Martial Arts Dance from’Chandni Chowk to China’
Co-produced by Warner Brothers Studios, the new Bollywood picture “Chandni Chowk to China” is an attempt to further tap the film market in India, where the native Bollywood product out-grosses Hollywood fare. Warner opened the film on more than 125 screens in some 50 markets in the United States and Canada, making it the largest release of a Bollywood film in North America.
In the story, a lowly New Delhi-based cook accidently becomes a martial arts action hero when he is mistaken for the reincarnation of an ancient peasant warrior and travels to China to save an oppressed village. In New York, The Washington Diplomat interviewed director Nikhil Advani, actor Akshay Kumar, and actress Deepika Padukone about their action comedy.
The film’s unusual title stems from the Indian origins of the plot. “There’s a saying in India: ‘Delhi is the heart of India, and Chandni Chowk is the heart of Delhi,’” Advani explained. “Chandni Chowk is Times Square gone about 10,000 times mad — the second largest trader’s market in the world.”
Filming in China was also a bit mad. “It’s extremely difficult. You have to submit a script to the government,” Advani said. “We had a Thai crew. We had a Chinese Cantonese crew. We had a Chinese Mandarin crew. There was chaos,” the director recalled, laughing. “But that’s what filmmaking is about. We got by with gesticulating, sign language, lots of talking loudly like this person’s deaf.”
Kumar recalled: “We had about 15 days work on the Great Wall of China, but we only got permission for seven days, so we just shot … 18 hours we used to work.”
“The schedule was relentless, being away from our families for 89 days,” Advani concluded. “There was a countdown to go home. It was like shooting ‘Lord of the Rings.’”
But the authentic locations were necessary to present the genre of Chinese martial arts on film — a subject that has long intrigued Advani. “I’ve watched all of Bruce Lee’s films. I’ve watched ‘Kill Bill,’ Jackie Chan. But everyone has. Jackie Chan is a huge star.”
Kumar, who stars as the accidental martial arts hero of the movie, has a background in martial arts himself (and also as a chef). “It was easy for me to play this character,” he said. Still, Kumar mused, “I thought I was good at martial arts until I met these Chinese dudes. They’re really amazing. They’re so fast. I realized how slow I was. I had to start practicing with them and come up at least near their level — slowly, slowly.”
Advani interjected, “Akshay is shooting with [actor Gordon Liu] the entire day. At the end of the day, he comes up to me and says, ‘You didn’t introduce me to Gordon Liu. I got into martial arts because of this man. You didn’t introduce me.’ He’s like a stuttering schoolboy in front of Gordon Liu.”
Kumar’s other co-star, Padukone, who plays the love interest, also had to prepare for the physical role. “The most important thing was the training I went through. I trained about six months before we actually started shooting,” she said. “I think the fact that I learned Indian classical dance when I was younger, that kind of helped me do martial arts easier. Martial arts— when you do action — it’s like treating it like a dance. It should be graceful.”
Her co-star found the dancing in the film to be more challenging than the fighting. “For me, dancing is very difficult. If you actually look at it, it looks like I’m doing aerobics or something,” said Kumar, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, who has made 120 films over a 20-year career.
As is typical in a Bollywood film, there is plenty of singing and dancing. “When we are born, we sing songs,” Advani quipped. “Songs and dance are an integral part of our life.”
Padukone — a relative Bollywood newcomer with three films under her belt — commented on the variety of styles comprising the song and dance sequences. “That’s what Indian movies are about. First of all, most of the time, a song begins with a dream sequence, so anything can happen in that song. You can change clothes a hundred times. Your hair can change. Makeup can change.”
Advani interjected: “When you don’t do that, the actress says, ‘How come I only had one change?’”
The director noted his film’s homages to “Drunken Master,” “Curse of the Golden Flower,” and “Lust, Caution,” just to name a few martial arts classics. “There are strong tributes to these great masters of Chinese cinema,” Advani said. “There are also great tributes to masters of Indian cinema…. It’s a Bollywood masala film. We’re just giving tributes. This is what Bollywood is all about.”
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.