From Bollywood to Chinatown: Warner Bros. teams with India for 'Chandni Chowk' martial-arts musical


Warner Bros has given us everything from the Dirty Harry films to the Harry Potter and Batman series. But what is this 90-year-old Hollywood studio giant doing in Bollywood, where the films are mostly spiced-up concoctions of over-the-top melodrama, comedy, songs, music, dances, romance and action?

Warner’s new film Chandni Chowk to China (or CC2C), a fusion of Chinese martial arts and Indian musicals (aptly called a “Kung Fu Curry” in the studio’s press material) with a healthy dose of comedy, is the acknowledgement of the fact that Bollywood—like its American counterpart Hollywood—is slowly becoming a global phenomenon.

CC2C opens worldwide on Jan. 16 in 40 international markets, and on roughly 130 screens in the U.S. This will be the largest exposure for a Hindi-language, subtitled Bollywood film in the U.S.

“You do not have to drive one hour to see the film,” the film’s 38-year-old director Nikhil Advani says, referring to the fact that Bollywood films often play in rundown theatres, sometimes located far from where South Asian immigrants reside. “It will be playing at a multiplex near your home.”

“Warner Bros. gave us a huge level of support,” Advani adds. “No Indian production would have been able to undertake so many days of shooting in China and over the Great Wall. I think Warner Bros. will become an ambassador of Indian films.”

India produces the largest number of films in the world. The country’s popular commercial cinema, produced in its business capital Mumbai (previously known as Bombay and hence the word Bollywood), has always had a wide reach in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and other Asian countries. And with the growth of the South Asian Diaspora in the U.S. and U.K., Indian filmmakers are also realizing big potentials in those markets.

India’s newly liberalized economy, with a population of 1.1 billion people and a large middle class that consumes goods and services, makes good business sense for American investments. So why should Hollywood be left behind?

Warner is the third studio—after Sony (Saawariya, 2007) and Disney (animated feature Roadside Romeo, 2008)—to produce a Bollywood film. Both Sony’s and Disney’s experiments failed, in that the films were not critical and box-office successes. Warner has followed the same formula—a Hindi-language film, primarily aimed at Bollywood lovers in India and abroad, with the hope of crossing over into the larger North American markets.

“If I had dubbed the film into English, its flavor would have been lost,” Advani says as he addresses the language, subtitles, and the songs and dance elements in CC2C. “It’s a film from India, made by Indians, and so it should be seen in the language it was made in. If you want to see this film, you have to accept it for the kind of film it is.”

But CC2C as a package deal comes with a lot of advantages. First, it stars one of Bollywood’s leading actors—Akshay Kumar, who at age of 42 is at the top of his game. As an action hero and now also a comic actor, Kumar is hugely popular among middle- and working-class Indians and other South Asians—at home and abroad. Last year his film Singh Is Kinng, in which he plays a Sikh character, was a big draw among Sikhs in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. India is often at odds with its neighbor Pakistan. But Singh Is Kinng was also a hit in Pakistan, and helped revive that country’s nearly dying movie theatre business.

CC2C is a semi-autobiographical story in which Kumar plays the role of a cook in Chandni Chowk, a neighborhood in Old Delhi, who travels to China under the belief that he was a Chinese warrior in his previous life. Before becoming a Bollywood star, Kumar worked as a waiter and a cook in Bangkok.

Kumar is trained in martial arts—a skill he also uses in CC2C. It is a classic underdog story, and Kumar’s screen presence makes him a very likeable character. He has perfect comic timing and often takes inspiration from Warner Bros.’ animated characters.

“I worked very hard in this film,” Kumar attests, sounding very earnest. “It took me a year to make this film. This man [Advani] took me to the Great Wall of China in cold weather and made me build my abs and do stunts.”

CC2C also stars the stunning Deepika Padukone in the double role of twin sisters separated when they were infants. A former model and relative newcomer to Bollywood film, Padukone, 22, is the daughter of India’s badminton star Prakash Padukone. She herself played badminton in school, a skill that came in handy when she spent nearly five months learning Chinese martial arts for her characters Suzy and Meow Meow.

The film also stars Chinese martial-arts actor Gordon Liu (Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) as Hojo, a villain who terrorizes the residents of a small Chinese village. Kumar’s Sidhu, the lovable, bumbling character from Chandni Chowk, finds his inner strength and learns martial arts to defeat Hojo and his henchmen.

“Sidhu’s character wants a change in his life, but he wants to take a short cut and he doesn’t want to work hard,” Advani says. “But when he arrives in China, he has to face his demons. Essentially the film is about believing in yourself, and then you can achieve anything.”
And if it is a Bollywood film, it will have fantasy songs and dance sequences. In one scene, Sidhu falls asleep during his flight to China, and begins to imagine himself as the leader of a Chinese army. He breaks into the title song accompanied by a large group of Chinese extras, all dressed in ancient army uniforms, marching and rocking to the beat.

Like most Bollywood offerings, CC2C is an entertaining film with a PG-13 rating and it should appeal to all ages.

“I am really looking forward to going back to Bombay and showing it to my son,” Kumar confides, referring to his six-year-old, Aarav. “This is the kind of film that he would enjoy. I also want to show the film to my grandmother. She is eagerly waiting to see it.”