Chandi Chowk to China
The movie "Slumdog Millionaire," which just swept the Golden Globes this past weekend, has been a surprise hit here. Warners Brothers is hoping to capitalize on the popularity of that film and its Indian setting. The studio's releasing "Chandni Chowk to China" (opening January 16 at UltraStar Del Mar). It's going to open on more than 125 screens in more than 50 markets. That would make it the largest release of a Bollywood film in the United States. And to add to the cultural mix, it's also the first Bollywood production to film in China. (You can listen to my feature from The World on Public Radio International.)
The idea for "Chandni Chowk to China" began with a poster. It had Bollywood star Akshay Kumar wearing a Chinese hat and holding a pair of swords with skewered vegetables.
Akshay Kumar: It's all about curry and noodles coming together.
That's actor Akshay Kumar. He says that despite the mix of cultures, Chandni Chowk to China is a Bollywood film.
Akshay Kumar: What Bollywood means is all kind of dancing, fights, romance and revenge tragedy, everything...
In the film, Kumar plays Sidhu, a cook who comes to believe he's the reincarnation of legendary Chinese warrior Liu Sheng. This leads to him traveling to China to help some laborers fight their oppressive employer. It's a kung fu action comedy played out to a Bollywood beat. In the film, Deepika Padukone plays two characters, one Indian and one Chinese. The characters play off of stereotypes from both countries says director Nikhil Advani.
Nikhil Advani: Saki, who is the Indian girl is very damsel in distress. We constantly wanted to play her one pitch higher because she doesn't know if she's coming or going whereas Meow Meow is silent, she's more a killer, she's very focused, she's deadly.
Advani says he drew on various influences ranging from Zhang Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower" to Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle" to Hollywood action films.
Nikhil Advani: I don't think there's an influence from Hollywood films per se in the narrative but in the styling. So Meow Meow is all the time dressed up in black leather. It's a very stylized look so that is definitely influenced by the X-men and Superman films.
But the music and dance are distinctly Indian. The film finds humor in the culture clash of staging an elaborate Bollywood number in the midst of the Forbidden City and with hundreds of Chinese soldiers. Actor Akshay Kumar says that scene involves a bit of cinematic trickery.
Akshay Kumar: We got to shoot in the Forbidden City but we didn't get to shoot in the real Forbidden City we got to shoot in the studio Forbidden City which is apparently much bigger.
They did, however, get to shoot on the real Great Wall, something no other international production has done before says director Nikhil Advani.
Nikhil Advani: Shooting in China you have to be very careful about whose toes you are treading on especially if you are shooting on one of the wonders of the world. Getting there was quite an uphill task you have to submit your script... a lot of preproduction to shoot 14 days on Great Wall.
Advani had four units shooting sometimes simultaneously on the Great Wall with star Kumar moving frantically between crews to get all the footage shot in the limited time frame. Kumar says he was used to the fast pace of Bollywood films but was impressed by the Chinese stunt crew he worked with.
Akshay Kumar: Working with these Chinese dudes I must say I thought I knew martial arts but when I met with them these guys were very fast. They are so quick and I was left behind.
But Kumar said he also learned a lot about kung fu wirework that he'll be taking back home to his Indian stunt men. Director Nikhil Advani is hoping for a different kind of cultural exchange when the film opens in the U.S. He says "Slumdog Millionaire" has opened a door for Indian film in America yet it's not a Bollywood film.
Nikhil Advani: No it is a film that was shot in India. It's about problems that exist in India. But a film like Mamma Mia where people break into song with a simple story and simple narrative at the end of the day is closer to Chandni than Slumdog Millionaire.
So whether Warner Brothers can tap into the success of "Mamm Mia!" or "Slumdog Millionaire," it's hoping to expand the market for this particular brand of Indian cinema.
Nikhil Advani: The message of Warner Brothers is that you don't have to travel --- to see your favorite Bollywood film. You can watch them in the multiplex right near your house. I think Warner Brothers will be the ambassador of Bollywood and make a crossover to audiences that are not traditionally Indian.
And the makers of "Chandni Chowk to China" are banking on its simple story and musical numbers crossing borders. They're going after audiences in the three largest movie markets in the world: India, the U.S., and China.