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From Slumdog to Chandni Chowk: Bollywood gets its closeup

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Sakhi (Deepika Padukone) and Sidhu (Akshay Kumar) dance in the streets in the action comedy Chandni Chowk to China. - PHOTO BY SHEENA SIPPY/ WARNER BROS. PICTURES

My universes collided this week. Shah Rukh Khan, the King of Bollywood, introduced the awards-sweeping Slumdog Millionaire clips at the Golden Globes, and Chandni Chowk to China, the first Bollywood movie to sip the enchanted elixir of Warner Bros' promotional mojo, released a record 130 prints in the U.S. Akshay Kumar, Chandni Chowk's star, was the subject of a glowing New York Times profile, and a Bollywood review finally cracked the pop culture barrier at Entertainment Weekly. Has the moment of crossover arrived?

As always, the answer is "kinda." Shah Rukh Khan's fans searched the Web in vain for any red carpet photos. Although sometimes described, in terms of global audience, as "bigger than Tom Cruise," the Hindi film superstar was ignored by the Western paparazzi (a humbling experience for him, I'm sure). And, what of Chandni Chowk? Akshay has an unbroken string of hits in India over the last couple of years, and Warners was wise, in principle, to hitch their wagon to his star. Last year, Sony, hot after moviegoer rupees, invested in auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali's dreary Saawariya, which was such a critical and box office disaster they yanked it after a week.

Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, martial arts films have been the international film crossover gold standard, and there were lots of non-Indians in the audience at Cary's Galaxy Cinema two weekends ago. Chandni Chowk cost a paltry $15 million and exploits Kumar's proven formula of late, the country bumpkin/ clown who becomes a hero by tapping into Indian cultural values. He's a former karate instructor whose chopsocky impresses—15 years ago, his moves put the current digital stylings to shame, and he still looks great, stunting, dancing or taking pratfalls.

Akshay Kumar as Sidhu in Chandni Chowk to China - PHOTO BY SHEENA SIPPY/ WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Nothing would please me more than to report that Chandni Chowk is a thrilling example of a "kung fu comedy," as the publicity would have it. As usual, the script—by Bluffmaster scribe Shridhar Raghavan and directed by Nikil Advani (Kal Ho Na Ho)—borrows liberally, sometimes with a wink, from world cinema. The basic plot is The Seven Samurai, in which a downtrodden village, akin to the subterranean one from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, recruits Sidhu, a lowly roadside cook from a busy Delhi crossroads, after mistaking him for the reincarnation of a legendary hero. Kumar bumbles far too long before deciding to become a kung fu master avenging the death of his foster father at the hand (or, rather, the razor-brimmed Oddjob derby) of Hojo, played by Hong Kong stalwart Gordon Liu.

The Chinese locations are spectacular, and there are some amusing details, like high-tech gadgets courtesy not of Q but of Home Shopping Network. Deepika Padukone charms as twins: one a model, the other an assassin named Meow Meow. And you've got to hand it to the star for his willingness to look as uncool as Will Ferrell before finding his destiny. But, is it really nearly two hours before the most entertaining sequence, Sidhu's training by another martial arts icon, Roger Yuan? Furthermore, most of songs seem truncated, raising the question of whether Warners put the kibosh on them.

Recently, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman grumped that Chandni Chowk isn't as good as Lagaan. (What is?) It would be more to the point to note that it isn't even as good as Kumar's last, Sinngh is Kinng. Still, Kumar's most devoted admirers won't find it a waste of time. Whether Warner Bros does remains to be seen.

Sidhu (Akshay Kumar) in the action comedy Chandni Chowk to China. - PHOTO BY SHEENA SIPPY/ WARNER BROS. PICTURES

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