This weekend, many people in the country might be getting their first real taste of Bollywood, and we’re not talking about Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire either! We’re talking about a real Bollywood film, one with a major twist: it was mainly shot in China, and it features the type of martial arts action we’ve seen coming out of that country for decades. The results are Chandni Chowk to China, a zany action-comedy starring Akshay Kumar, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, who has shot 120 films in the last twenty years including some of India’s biggest hits, his most recent one being Singh is Kinng.
In his new action-comedy directed by Nikhil Advani, Kumar plays Sidhu, a cook from Chandni Chowk–the most congested area of India with the second-largest traders’ market in the world–considered the “heart of Delhi” who is convinced to go to China to help a village on the outskirts of the Great Wall. The villagers are being tormented by a gangster named Hojo (played by the legendary Gordon Liu, some will remember from Kill Bill).
His leading lady, making only her third film appearance, is Deepika Padukone from Om Shanti Om, another Bollywood blockbuster, who actually plays twin sisters in the movie – one raised in India to become a television spokesmodel, the other raised in China by Hojo and trained as the deadly assassin known only as “Meow Meow.”
ComingSoon.net had a chance to ask Kumar, Advani and Padukone questions about the film when they came to New York City for an unprecedented U.S. press junket. We’ve seen many Bollywood films released in this country every year, but this is the first one distributed by Warner Bros., which is giving it the widest opening release ever for a Bollywood production. We quickly got some idea how big Kumar is in his native country, because the buzz in the air surrounding him at the junket was similar to the one we might see at a junket for a Will Smith movie.
As the three sat down, director Nikhil Advani told us how this project came together. “The producer of the film is a very good friend of mine and we were talking for a long time about doing something together. He had already been collaborating with the writer of the film on two other occasions, and they met Ashkay after they’d come up with an idea of a poster so they showed him the poster where he’s standing with two swords, which are more like shish-ke-babs.”
Akshay Kumar continued this story. “I looked at the poster and I asked, ‘What’s the script?’ and he says, ‘I don’t have a script.” I said, ‘What’s the idea?’ ‘I don’t have an idea.’ ‘So what do you have?’ ‘I just have this poster.’ So I said, ‘Do you know when you approach an actor, his requirement is a script?’ He said, ‘I know but I don’t have it.’ And I said, ‘Congratulations, this is a new way of working. I really like the poster, it’s great, and I’m going to work in your film!’ (With Chinese films), you sometimes see the poster and you don’t even know what these films are but you just like the poster so you’ll say, ‘Okay, let me watch this film, the poster looks interesting.’ That’s exactly what happened with me, then later on, they started making the script.”
The story idea certainly had resonance with Akshay, especially as the producers developed the character based on aspects of the actor’s own past. “In my real life, I’ve also been a chef, so to play this character was very easy,” Kumar admitted; he also helped come up with the film’s title. “I’m born in Chandni Chowk, and this character was in Chandni Chowk. At first, they wanted to call this film ‘Made in China’ so then we shifted to the title ‘Chandni Chowk to China.'”
When asked about the film’s Chinese influences, Advani listed a number of the biggest movies made in the country in the last five years. “Lots of Stephen Chow, lots of ‘Curse of the Golden Flower,’ Mr. Ang Lee’s ‘Lust/Caution.’ We have the entire song sequence where she’s dressed in the (traditional Chinese garbs) with the other girls, and he’s dressed in a suit from 1930’s occupied China, and we shot in the same street that Mr. Ang Lee shot “Lust/Caution.” We have the same cars going in the background, and we have Zhang Yimou’s Golden Flowers. There are very strong tributes to these great masters of Chinese cinema.”
Of course, more of those Chinese influences come from the world of martial arts, and though Advani wouldn’t admit to being a big fan of the genre, he had already seen many movies even before signing on to make it. “I watched all of Bruce Lee’s films and Jackie Chan and ‘Kill Bill’ and all that, but everybody has. Jackie Chan is a huge star, but for me, the first idea working with Mr. Akshay Kumar was ‘You have to come every morning and I’m going to make you see martial arts films.'”
“Every morning, I used to call him at 6 in the morning. At my house, we would watch every Chinese movie. I think 50 or 55 movies we’ve seen,” Kumar confirmed.
Kumar was so enthused by what he saw that he’d tell the producers and director what he wanted to include the movie, Advani told us. “He’d say, ‘Look at this guy, look at what he does. See that move, the way he’s broken the walnuts.’ I said, ‘Okay, it’s wonderful.’ (And he said) ‘We have to have that in the film,’ and yes, we have that in the film.'”
“I knew martial arts but I met these Chinese dudes who are so amazing,” Kumar said. “They’re so fast and I realized how slow I was, but literally from the first day on, I had to start practicing with them and try to at least come up near their level slowly.”
Advani told us a funny anecdote about Kumar having a chance to work with one of his heroes. “You have Gordon Liu in the film, he’s the first Shaolin monk. Akshay was shooting with me the entire day and at the end of the day he says to me, ‘Introduce me to Mr. Liu. I got into martial arts because of this man, you have to introduce me.’ I said, ‘You’ve just shot with him the whole day, you could have gone and said hello.’ You just don’t approach Gordon Liu. He was like a schoolboy in front of Gordon Liu.”
The gorgeous Deepika Padukone jumped in with how Advani prepared her for her own martial arts debut. “He wanted me to watch ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Elektra’ to get the look of the action, because the way girls do action is obviously different from the way guys do action. I watched a couple of films then, but the most important thing was the training that I went through. I trained for about six months before we started shooting and the action choreographer who is based in Hong Kong, he sent some of his people. I think that’s what helped me a lot.”
“There’s also great tributes to our masters of Indian cinema,” Advani added. “One of the producers of the film is Ramesh Sippy, who made a film called “Sholay” which is an all-time great Indian film. He’s the producer of the film. The story of “Sholay” is one of the leaders of the village goes to find two criminals and brings them to protect the village. His other film was twins being separated at birth. It’s a Bollywood Marsala film. We’re just giving tributes.”
Somewhat surprising considering how many movies he’s made, was that for Kumar, the bigger challenge than the martial arts was the dancing. “If you actually look at it,” Akshay joked, “I look as if I’m doing aerobics or something, because that’s not dancing what I do. I just follow.”
Deepika had the opposite problem, being far more comfortable with the film’s dance numbers. “I think the fact that I learned Indian classical dance when I was younger, that kind of helped me do martial arts a lot easier. In some ways, dance and action go hand in hand because when you do martial arts, it’s like treating it like a dance and should be extremely graceful. In some way, the dance that I learned really helped me a lot.”
The actress actually had bigger challenges, though, and that was the fact that she was playing two very different characters whom often appear in scenes together. “(It was) extremely challenging, if for the fact that both the characters are completely different from the kind of person that I am. On certain days, we’d have location only for a limited period of time when I would have to do both the looks, so I’d quickly do one look, run back to my van, change make-up, change hair, change everything and go back and do the other look. Sometimes I would have to do that three or four times over and over again, because when you have a location just for a couple of days, we have to finish both the things. We used this technique called ‘stop-block’ where you use one camera and finish one bit and then you have to go back and change…”
“Because we did not have the money for motion-control. Let’s just say it,” Advani interjected. “We had planned very elaborate and complicated moves when the twins are about to meet each other. ‘This will happen, that will happen,’ we storyboarded and then producers said, ‘No money. You can’t take a motion-control camera to China. How will you get it onto the Great Wall of China? It’s not possible.’ Good valid point, so we basically went to the very archaic and old-fashioned technique of one camera, keep the camera standing, Deepika go change, Deepika come back, then shoot the other side.”
“It was very tiring and extremely challenging,” the actress continued. “I think for most of us, the Great Wall of China schedule was the most tiring because it was extremely cold there, because that’s the point China was going through a cold wave. More than for us, just for the entire unit to carry so much equipment up and down–lighting equipment, camera–and so many times going up and down and up and down, it was really tiring.”
“As far as the language was concerned,” Advani said when asked about the biggest difference between the two countries. “We had a Thai crew, we had a Chinese-Mandarin crew, we had a Chinese-Cantonese crew, we had an Indian crew, and there was chaos. But that is what filmmaking is about. We got by with a lot of gesticulating, lots of sign language, lots of talking loudly as if the other person was deaf.”
Advani also talked more about how they were able to shoot on the Great Wall of China in the first place, since it’s a location you don’t often see in films not made in China. “It’s extremely difficult because you have to submit your script to the government and they will decide, and you have to be very, very sensitive about the cultural difference. It’s a very difficult situation, but having said that, once they gave us permission to use the Great Wall, then we were jumping off the Great Wall and flying all over the place. They really allowed us to do lots of things.”
“We had about 15 days of work on the Great Wall of China, but we only got permission for seven days, so we used to work 18 hours,” Kumar added.
“It was just a relentless schedule and being away from our families for 89 days,” lamented Advani. “I remember the last week, we actually tried to pull a fast one on the entire crew and say, ‘Akshay’s actually given us more days, so we can complete the entire film now, so we’re going to be here 15 more days. There was chaos. Everybody said, ‘We want to go home. When are we going back home?’ It was like shooting ‘Lord of the Rings.'”
Deepika and the director elaborated more on how the musical dance numbers are usually handled in Bollywood films. “There’s always changes,” the actress said. “Most of the time a song begins with a dream sequence, so anything can happen in that song. Your hair and make-up can change 400 times.”
“Having said that, when you don’t do that, the actress says, ‘How come I only do one change?'” Advani chortled.
“It’s the only time an actress can try different looks and make-up,” she rebutted. “It’s changing now and becoming a lot more realistic, but I think in a lot of ways, that’s what Indian cinema is about and maybe it shouldn’t, and that’s the nice thing about our film.”
Advani was especially proud that all of the FX for the film were done in India. “When I came on as director of this film, I wanted to make sure that it was an Indian film and an Indian post house, because the post on the film is so important to the film, it’s going to take it to another level. I wanted to showcase that even in India, we also have the talent that can put out a film like this, so it’s all done completely in India.”
“I think more and more facilities in India will be used and can be used to make Hollywood films,” the director answered when asked about more Western directors filming in India as Danny Boyle had done. “We have soundstages, we have equipment, we have post houses. I think people can come to India and make films cheaper.”
“But I don’t think international directors will be making Bollywood films,” he continued. “It’s very important for you to be able to understand the Indian culture for you to be able to make a Bollywood film. You need to be able to live that culture. When we’re born, we sing songs, and when someone dies. Song and dance are an integral part of our life, and culturally, we’re very open about our emotions. We will openly tell you what we feel. We will stand on the Brooklyn Bridge and open our arms and we’ll cry. What looks out of place to a Western audience, to an Indian audience, it’s like ‘I would do that. What’s the big deal?’ The unitiated Bollywood filmgoer will walk away and say, ‘This doesn’t happen.’ What do you mean it doesn’t happen? Of course it happens. It’s happening in grand theater films, there’s nothing new about this. It’s art is imitating our life. We really have that kind of… Not to make comparisons, but we’re like the Irish and we’re very very lucky. We like to embrace life and we’re very open about it.”
“Everything boils down to one thing,” Kumar told us when asked about the crazy production schedules in India. “When we make a Bollywood film, the budget is not as high as a Hollywood film. That’s how it is. We have made this film for about $7 to 8 million U.S. dollars. For this kind of production to have that much budget – because we can’t exceed that much, because we don’t have that much reach towards the people; we’re trying our level best to do that.”
“We’re trying to crossover to other audiences,” Advani agreed.
“That’s the whole idea, to get this whole movie across, so the budget also increases, so we can make good films,” Kumar said, finishing the director’s thought. “I met a few Hollywood directors and they are saying, “With $7 million, you have made this film and that’s commendable, it’s amazing. But we can’t do more than that, so we’re trying. We were making films I think about three or four years back, we were near $2 million. We had to finish a film with $2 or 3 million. Now we’re calculating – I hope that the movie’s success is there, so we’ll be going towards about $16 million. We’ll be making some good, good, very good films, but we’re very passionate about this.”
To wrap things up, Kumar clarified why he thinks “Chandni Chowk to China” might have more mainstream worldwide appeal than previous Bollywood films. “When we make a Bollywood film, we make a film which has comedy only or a film that has action. It’s emotional or romantic, but this film has everything mixed together, and if anybody wants to give a few word answer, “What’s the perfect Bollywood film? I would say, ‘This is the DVD (not pirated) of our film ‘Chandni Chowk to China.’ Watch this. This is what Bollywood is all about. Everything is there.”
Chandni Chowk to China opens in 50 cities on Friday, January 16, the widest release for a Bollywood film in the United States.