Film Review: It’s A Wonderful Afterlife

Directed by: Gurinder Chadha

Starring: Shabana Azmi, Goldy Notay, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Sally Hawkins, Jimi Mistry, Shaheen Khan and Mark Addy

Gurinder Chadha films remind me a lot of Karan Johar films (should anyone be wondering where my Bollywood connection was going to come from!). Both come with lots of expectations, always do well at the box office (in the latter’s case, often rewriting records) and the films stand up to repeat viewing quite well – I’ve lost count of how many times I have sat right through to the end of Bend It Like Beckham when it is on television or how quickly I settle into Bride & Prejudice (which seems to be on TV every other week!). So when it comes to It’s A Wonderful Afterlife, it is fair to say I went with many expectations and wondering how this film would work as a standalone as well as part of Chadha’s body of work.

It’s A Wonderful Afterlife (IAWA) has a simple story – Mrs Sethi (Azmi) wants to see her daughter Roopi (Notay) get married and settle down. However, Mrs Sethi has a dark secret of her own – she has murdered four people who she feels have harmed Roopi’s marriage prospects and now their spirits haunt her and cannot move onto their next lives until Mrs Sethi dies – which she agrees to do once Roopi is married. The ghosts are reluctantly forced to help her and go on the hunt for a groom for Roopi…

IAWA is a watchable film though it is not a laugh a minute jobbie – the humour here is quite dark and though there are some laugh out loud moments, the film is made up of equal parts of drama, comedy, tragedy and horror and Chadha does a commendable job of steering the film through these genres whilst keeping to the story. Though this may not appear to be a Chadha film on the surface, all the elements that her films are loved for are there in the film and quietly woven into the film. I love the locations used in the film, from Southall to the South Bank and even my local branch of Asda (er…) which adds to the charm of the film. I also really liked the soundtrack especially the It’s A Wonderful Life montage and the Shinda Shinda Gumsum number used in the wedding sequence at the end.

The film really scores on two points – one is in the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship with some very touching moments between Roopi and Mrs Sethi – note the scene in the park where Roopi talks about having a baby or the way Mrs Sethi defends her daughter from the spirits. The bond comes across as believable and endearing, not only because of the performances (more on that later) but also because of some good writing. I also thought the film’s commentary on Indian marriage was quite interesting -I liked the way the spirits represented the pressure Mrs Sethi felt from the community to get married and how only she could see and hear them whilst Roopi could not. It also neatly underlines how the pressure to marry changes people from reasonable persons into harsh critics – the spirits who criticise Roopi eventually realise what a good person she is and show remorse for their actions (if only life imitated art!)

In terms of performances, the majority of the cast do very well – Shabana Azmi is very good as Mrs Sethi, giving a sympathetic but determined performance and playing the character quietly rather than loudly which is not as easy as it sounds. Goldy Notay also gives a very good account of herself as Roopi, making the character three dimensional and very likeable – I thought she shared a very natural chemistry with Azmi, Ramamurthy and Hawkins and again, gives a very subtle performance. Sendhil Ramamurthy makes a very good leading man and plays the role straight allowing others to work their comic timing. I liked Sally Hawkins as Linda and again, felt she played the character just right, without going over the top. I also thought Mark Addy, Shaheen Khan and Adlyn Ross were very good in supporting roles as well as Zoe Wannamaker as Mrs Goldstein – in fact, the only weak link in the cast for me was Sanjeev Bhaskar as I found his performance repetitive and irritating – I thought his loud, abrupt style didn’t fit in with the rest of the film.

Also like Johar, Chadha’s films divide people into those that love them and those that can’t stand them. Whichever camp you may fall into, IAWA is an entertaining film and certainly if you are in the mood for a fun film, then this is one to watch. It may not have the polish of a Hollywood romcom nor the gloss of a Hindi film but instead sits in between these two poles which is largely unchartered territory. It does have a unique sense of humour that won’t be to everyone’s taste but even the cynical may be surprised to find themselves laughing at times – and that is no bad thing. Not entirely unmissable but also not as bad as its made out to be, IAWA is worth a watch and a nice starter to kick off Summer 2010 in the world of cinema…

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