Sprawling, flashy, frantic, and loud, Chandni Chowk to China is probably the Bollywood musical comedy/melodrama that will finally crack the international mainstream market. Warner Bros. is backing the film (its first Hindi movie), spent $16 million on Bollywood stars and special effects, and is opening the slapstick epic in 50 countries this week.
Fundamentally, Chandni Chowk is a Horatio Alger story about a goofy street cook (Sidhu, played by Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar) who leaves his stern adoptive father in Chandni Chowk—a poor neighborhood in Delhi—for a wild-goose chase in China. It ends with him studying kung fu and defeating the villain. (No need for a spoiler alert: All of this is painfully obvious within the first 10 of Chandni Chowk's 154 minutes.)
But the film is all digressions and frosting, a pastiche of everything. There's martial-arts action, movie-musical dream sequences, Farrelly-brothers slapstick, and six out of seven standard-issue Hollywood plots: a revenge story, a love story, a reunited-twins story, a bildungsroman, a picaresque, and even a bit of a sex thriller, if you count the assassin trying to kiss Sidhu with her poison lip balm. The only thing Chandni Chowk isn't is a murder mystery.
The film is excessive in every way, but, for all the overwrought emotion and wocka-wocka humor (balls are kicked, noses are slammed in doors), it never feels like too much. The bright, colorful feast leaves you full in a pleasant, mildly overstuffed way, not a so-full-you're-gonna-barf way.
Kumar is charming and radiant as Sidhu, a superstitious sycophant who plays the lottery, visits fortune-tellers, and thinks he sees the Lord Ganesha in a potato. (If an American film played the ethnic stereotypes this broadly, it'd start a firestorm of liberal indignation.)
Thinking he's the reincarnation of a great Chinese warrior, he goes to a small village enslaved by a murderous gangster who deals in stolen antiquities (Gordon Liu). The villagers want Sidhu to kill the boss, and the rest is six plots bobbing and weaving together.
There's lots of crying—real drooling-and-snotting crying, mostly from the men—and martial-arts special effects and totally unnecessary but unimpeachably fun musical numbers. Plus a rap at the end, with sword-wielding vixens in yellow Kill Bill suits. And, best of all, the setup for a sequel.
Sidhu's going to a lot of places, including the lunch boxes and T-shirts of kids across the world, before he returns to Chandni Chowk.