THE COOK, THE CHIEF, HIS LOVER & HER SISTER
Akshay Kumar’s latest action-comedy is overlong and overstuffed, and yet preferable to the standard Akshay Kumar action-comedy.
JAN 18, 2009 – IT’S BECOMING INCREASINGLY APPARENT, with each passing year, that Bollywood today is populated with a raft of writers obsessively weaned on the masala movie. I’m not talking about pompous, masala-wannabe outings like Ghajini, which take themselves so seriously, you’d think they’d set out to recreate King Lear. I refer to the true masala movies of yore – the ones where scenes of comedy and drama and action jostled together for space and were integrated in such a rudely slapdash fashion, the logical viewer would end up with whiplash while tracking the course of the narrative, moment to preposterous moment. These weren’t the efforts of filmmakers so much as flimflam-meisters, determined to hoodwink an undemanding audience with a procession of vaudeville vignettes (or closer to our culture, nautanki items).
With the gradual arrival of directors who grew up worshipping Hollywood and European cinema – all that depth, all that meaning, all that gravity, all that class – the disreputable masala movies (namely, our grindhouse fare) died a well-deserved death. But absence, clearly, makes the heart grow fonder, and these writers today, despite their relative refinement in matters of cinema, appear to miss the tawdry pleasures of their childhood. And because we’d laugh them out of a living if they attempted to revitalise those moribund filmmaking traditions, they’ve devised a workaround that requires, above all else, the tongue to be pressed firmly against the cheek. They make masala movies that wink at masala movies, gleefully getting their hands dirty and yet distancing themselves from disrepute with hipster layers of ironic detachment.
Nikhil Advani’s Chandni Chowk to China is so crammed with nudge-nudge memories from the masala era that you could entertain yourself simply with a guessing game about the various references. Isn’t the device of Deepika Padukone playing good-and-evil twin sisters a nod towards Sharmila Tagore playing good-and-evil twin sisters in An Evening in Paris? Isn’t that why the evil twin here is named Suzy, which was the name the earlier evil twin went by? And when Suzy also goes by the nick of Meow Meow, is it a jokey dig at the French actress Miou-Miou, who perhaps fanned the adolescent flames of one of the writers? And maybe, like most young lads from a certain time, they were fans of Zeenat Aman as well, for what else explains the invocation of chanchal-sheetal-nirmal-komal?
The “Dancemaster G9” gadget is no doubt a tip of the hat to Mithun Chakraborty (who plays a smallish part here), but could the archvillain’s name (Hojo) hark back to, of all things, the Mandrake comics? (How cheeky, then, that the antagonist is named after a chef in a film where the protagonist is a cook.) And how could anyone who grew up in the seventies not see that Hojo is played by Gordon Liu, who burst into our consciousness as the awesome star of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin? And how could a fan of the earlier James Bond adventures not chuckle at Hojo’s choice of weapon (a killer bowler hat) and the cheesy-nifty gadgets like a Chinese-to-Hindi translator? (As this device is introduced, a roomful of scientists burst into a song along the lines of the eighties’ Bajaj ad that went Jab main chhota ladka tha.)
The big question, however, is whether memories alone can make a movie – and the answer, based on the evidence of Chandni Chowk to China, would have be, well, perhaps every now and then. Because between all the nostalgic nods – my favourite is a throwaway shot of a father and his estranged daughters, all in the same frame, all blissfully unaware that, as in a Manmohan Desai production, reunion is but a shout away – there are stretches that are weighted down by a distressing amount of dead air. The problem isn’t the shambling plot – some cheerfully lowbrow hooey about a cook (Sidhu, played by Akshay Kumar) navigating the titular journey upon being mistaken for the reincarnation of a Chinese warlord-chief – but Advani is a curious choice to direct this material.
The director knows his way around romance – he fashions a sweet little moment where Sidhu demonstrates the toughness of his newly developed forearms by hoisting his girl (Deepika Padukone, surely the fullest figure that’s ever been poured into a cheongsam) as she picks flowers off the tallest of branches – but he isn’t quite as adept in establishing the frenetic air of slapstick silliness needed to sustain a high-concept lark of this nature. Akshay has a hilarious bit where he’s reduced to dancing in a series of varying styles (for various hit songs that must have tickled the writers’ fancy at some point) and Ranvir Shorey (as Sidhu’s sidekick named Chopstick) runs away with a huge laugh involving an in-flight overhead compartment – but when the gags don’t measure up, there’s nothing for the actors to fall back on.
But despite these reservations, Chandni Chowk to China is far easier to endure than the standard, dumb, noisy Akshay Kumar vehicle – something like Singh is Kingg, which would never dream up a bit as borderline-surreal as the one where Sidhu’s mentor exhorts him to apply his culinary skills in a martial-arts showdown. (The line is hilarious: “Kaat daal saalon ko gaajar-mooli ki tarah!) As I left, I wished the narrative had been tighter and the gags more plentiful, but the only thing I was seriously bummed about was that the exquisite romantic duet, Tere naina, was lopped off – presumably due to time constraints – just as hero and heroine were beginning to settle into a serious clinch. For such unabashed admirers of masala movies, don’t they know better than to leave the audience panting during the much-awaited moment of consummation?
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