By Hindustan Times
It’s A Wonderful Afterlife
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Goldy Notay, Sendhil Ramamurthy
Direction: Gurinder Chadha
Few Indian actors can match Shabana Azmi’s resumé . Across four decades, she’s done about 130 films, and outshone most of her contemporaries at her range itself. I suspect this must still be one of those rare films when she may have walked on to the set wondering what to do with herself. Her character is so bizarrely layered, you can at best credit her experience alone, that she doesn’t come across entirely out of sorts on the big screen.
She plays one, Mrs Sethi, an over-protective mother, over-sympathetic to her daughter’s horizontal challenge. Her only concern is to find a suitable match for her girl, something her educated, modern, brown British daughter should be able to do on her own. But that’s hardly the point.
Mrs Sethi seems a chatty, sensitive sort of woman, like several aunties around areas such as London’s Southall, who rarely assimilate within cultures they migrate into. They’re in fact more Indian than Indians back home. This part comes through.
What doesn’t is that Mrs Sethi, by night, is also someone who goes by the name of the ‘Curry Killer’. Her serial murders make for tabloid headlines. The dead bodies are found with “chili content way off human tolerance levels”, and crazy kitchen implements like the seekh of the seekh kabab, inserted into their body parts. It may call for a serious effort by any filmmaker to make audiences sense comedy in a sweetly caring mom, doubling up as a sickened serial killer. But that’s precisely the attempt.
Mrs Sethi also sees dead people. They’re ghosts with shadows. The soul of the murdered, it seems, can move on — get reincarnated —only when the murderer is dead. This murderer, the Curry Killer or Mrs Sethi, cannot die until she finds for her innately charming but fat daughter (Goldy Notay), a husband as stunning as a tall, dark, horse-like Sendhil Ramamurthy, or someone similar. Hmmm.
Gurinder Chadha’s pretty much made a living off films that place women of Indian descent as minor misfits in society, and take it from there (Bhaji On The Beach, Bend It Like Beckham). This one’s no exception in that sense. Chaddha certainly is as close to the real non-resident Indian life (often parodied in Bollywood) as she was furthest away from Indian sensibilities in Bride And Prejudice, or from desi exotica in Mistress Of Spices (both pure scams). For most of it, this picture, the drawing room and the kitchen, seem an episode from the hit comedy chat-show Kumar’s At No 42. The hilarious host Sanjeev Bhaskar incidentally plays one of the ghosts in this film. A staged play around this script may not be such a poor idea.
Beyond that, you wonder if two separate people have in parts made this picture together. The surrealism rarely blends in with the realism.
The scene that completely takes the cake concerns the only non-brown proper-character in a movie set in the western, white world. This girl Linda, with a Hindu assumed name Gitali, is besotted by Indian occultism. She can sense aura and the ghosts hovering around Mrs Sethi. It’s her engagement party, which goes for a toss with ganja pakodas (it should’ve been bhaang pakodas) served to guests. Linda, her entire body dripping in red chutney, scarily screams and levitates like Linda Blair from The Exorcist. Curries fly off serving tables. As do plates and other assortments. There’s suddenly psychedelic lighting and mayhem all across.
You cringe in helplessness, to realise, this is just a sad B-movie, merely testing bounds of insanity, secretly hoping for a cult status. Sure, cinema’s after all a suspension of disbelief, and many adore similarly berserk flicks like Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (why, even Saw).
I guess it takes talent of another kind to pull that stuff off. This lameness so doesn’t cut it.