Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Lights! Camera! Ganja Pakoras! - Gurindher Chadha's back.

Gurindher Chadha is one of the loveliest, liveliest people you will meet; her Punjabi ebullience screaming out from each pore. And she’s given to making movies that are quite lovely as well, films that occupy that vast cinematic expanse between mediocre and terrific, with a few exceptions of course (Bend it Like Beckham, Bhaji on the Beach which are nearer the terrific side of the fence). Her latest is “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife”, a horror-comedy-romance that combines a veritable orgy of genres, from classic Ealing Comedies to zombie-spoofs. It’s a circus of a movie that is, however, more communist era East European attraction than Cirque du Soleil.

Okay, let me see if I can get the synopsis right without getting my intestines knotted up: the film begins with Sanjeev Baskar’s character being force fed Chicken Vindaloo before his stomach bursts open in an operating theatre. It’s one in a series of messy deaths involving everything from Chapatti dough to Chicken skewers. The culprit is the distinctly middle-class Mrs Sethi (Shabana Azmi) who’s killing off anyone who snubs her daughter, the plump but good-natured Roopy (Goldy Notay). Shadowing the deadly cook (and visible only to her) are the spirits of her victims, loitering around Mrs Sethi, nagging and castigating the poor woman and demanding she kill herself so that they can move on to the afterlife. The dutiful mother agrees but not before she has found a suitable partner for Roopy. The bungling local police are on to her (they think) and the polite and handsome police officer Murthy is drafted in to investigate; he happens to be known to Roopy and her recently widowed mother.

Soon Mrs Sethi and her poltergeist crew are scheming their way to getting Roopy hitched. Into this slightly convoluted mix comes Linda (Sally Hawkins), Roopy’s friend who’s been transformed into a new age psychic after a visit to an Indian Ashram. She calls herself Gitali, wears Indian clothes, has an Indian fiancée (Jimi Mistry) and is convinced that she’s in tune with the spirit world.

The plot is a bit loony but the film is saved (just) by the fact that Chadha likes to go the whole hog, whatever she does. The climactic scene is a heady, colourful reimagining of the ending to Brian de Palma’s ‘Carrie’ with the explosions, water cannons and runaway electricity cables replaced here with Chicken Tikka Masala and Vegetable Pakoras; topped off with a generous dose of old school Bollywood.

The legendary and elegant Shabhana Azmi, unsurprisingly, is excellent in her role as the conflicted mother, portraying with aplomb the anguish and determination felt by that eternally undervalued member of the family. The sickeningly handsome (and I’m a man) Sendhil Ramamurthy (the strait laced geneticist Mohinder Suresh in ‘Heroes’) plays to type as does the exquisite and charming Goldy Notay, who had to pile on the pounds for her role. However, the real heart of the film is Sally Hawkins, a bundle of nervous energy who’s effusive and incredibly affectionate and who ends up stealing each scene.

In spite of the cast however, overall, the film’s a disappointment. The script (by Chadha and her husband Paul Mayeda Burges) plays on all the customary cultural oddities – from arranged marriages and bigamy to mothers accompanying grown men to speed dating events. Those issues have been exploited in the same way so many times that it all just feels like stale Chapattis; still edible (admit it, everyone’s had stale Chapattis) but not very enjoyable. The humour is witty at times but mostly just plain silly and relies on the usual Indian curry jokes and fat gags. Annoyingly, just when the narrative promises some flow and substance, Gurindher’s off in a hurry trying to cram in as much gore, as many genres and gags as possible and just generally causing chaos. Her approach is endearingly muddled but muddled nonetheless.

“Afterlife” seems to have been a bit of a diversion before Chadha embarks on her far more serious next project, which is reportedly based on “Freedom at Midnight”, the acclaimed book on the Partition of India. I’m actually looking forward to it because when Chadha gets it right, her films are really good. This one just feels like a diversion as well.

If it’s light-hearted, feel-good entertainment (complete with syrupy soundtrack) you’re after, this is your Chicken Tikka Masala; invented by the Brits, unheard of in India, prepared by Bangladeshis. Unadventurous and predictable but entertaining on a quiet Thursday night nonetheless.

Just about lovely. Nothing more, nothing less.

- Vijitha Alles

“It’s a Wonderful Afterlife” is released April 21.


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  2. Watch the Trailer..