Tuesday night, Sundance saw the World Premier of It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, the new film by Gurinder Chadha, director of Bend It Like Beckham. It is a film about many things; Indian women in London taking charge of their lives, couples’ need for honesty in their relationships, mothers’ responsibilities to their daughters, and murderers responsibilities to their victims. Ms. Chadha presented the film, warning the audience that it was “really weird,” and hoping they would be willing to join her on the ride. Check out the review after the jump…
It’s a Wonderful Afterlife starts with a bang. It opens with a man being force fed until he dies (A nod to David Fincher’s Se7en). When he is rushed to the hospital and a team of doctors attempts to resuscitate him, his guts literally explode all over them. We soon find out that he is one of several victims in a series of food related murders in London. Detective Raj Murthy, played by Heroes’ Sendhil Ramamurthy, is assigned to a task force to find the killer. While interviewing people in the Indian community of Eling, he is reintroduced to his “auntie,” Mrs. Sethi and his childhood friend Roopi. Yet the story is not exactly Murthy’s. The story belongs Mrs. Sethi and her daughter Roopi. The story quickly shifts from the whodunit of “the curry killer,” when it is revealed that Mrs. Sethi is the murderer, when the ghosts of the victims show up to haunt her. When these individuals insult and reject her daughter as a marriage prospect, she cannot contain her rage, and kills them. However, it turns out that people who are murdered do not get reincarnated until their killer has also died. However, Mrs. Sethi refuses to end her life until she sees her daughter happily married and secure for the rest of her life. So Mrs. Sethi, her dead companions, and Roopi’s slightly psychic and entirely nutty best friend Linda set out to find her a husband. And it would seem that Det. Murthy might be just the man they’re looking for.
It’s a Wonderful Afterlife is entirely over the top. Ms. Chadha makes no attempt at subtlety in any regard; from the exposition of the plot via dialogue, to the makeup effects on the ghosts, even to the references to the films that inspired her as a filmmaker. In fact, there is a hysterical, if a little long, scene that is basically what would happen if the climax from Brian DePalma’s Carrie took place at an Indian wedding. One audience member was overheard saying, “This is a perfect Bollywood film,” which is entirely untrue. It’s a Wonderful Afterlife is a wholly English comedy. It is chock full of slapstick, pop culture references, and broad jokes (including a scene in which people are unknowingly fed pot brownies, which seems like it was written by some one who’s never actually eaten pot brownies).
Luckily, the performances from all of the actors in this film are all tremendously strong, and remain engaging even when the story seems spoonfed and elementary. The unconditional love Mrs. Sethi is unquestionable, and it is completely clear that she would do anything to assure her daughter’s happiness. Roopi’s confidence in herself and her choice of career over romance is perfectly balanced with a quiet loneliness. And boy, that Det. Murthy sure is a easy on the eyes. He could simply read pages out of the dictionary, and half the audience would watch unblinkingly.
Unfortunately, It’s a Wonderful Afterlife didn’t quite connect with this reviewer. The thought of marriage for its own sake simply doesn’t strike as especially imperative, and makes the whole driving force behind the plot seem somewhat trivial. However, Ms. Chada stated that her intent as a filmmaker is to bring to Indian women, a population practically invisible to the rest of the world, to the forefront of the story, and to show these women as strong, capable, and in control. This goal is met to an extent, although when they do lose control, all hell breaks loose. It moves quickly enough, and has more than enough jokes and good spirited energy to make it an amusing film, but hardly a poignant one.