As Shakespeare said in another context, this is a grave matter. Gurinder Chadha’s new…er, ghoulish comedy (for the want of better terminology) is also a gravy matter. Ghouls rise from the dead and mess around with ladels of curries and gravies in what could easily be termed the most messy climax of desi-gone-ballistic-firangi cinema. By the time the masala curries chutneys gravies and other acidic edibles begin to fall across a singing-dancing gathering of NRIs at a big fat Punjabi wedding, the plot is too far gone to be called eccentric or even bizarre.
Hai Marjawaan (It’s A Wonder Afterlife) is one those films that should not have happened. It is way too strained in concept and far too outlandish in execution to hold the audiences interest beyond the first ten minutes when we see the benignly murderous Mrs Sethi (Shabana Azmi,in full-blooded form) surrounded by the ghosts of the people she killed because they wouldn’t let their kin be married to her overweight daughter.
The half-dead people in this half-baked attempt to combine spook with satire spend the film’s entire playing time counseling and cajoling the harassed Mrs Sethi. Beyond a point watching the murder victims with the murder weapons permanently in place begins to get tedious and nauseous. For how long can we watch a man with chicken curry bursting out of his intestines? Or a woman with rolling-pin sticking out of her head? The ghosts try to be funny. They are just exasperating.
But make no mistake. This film has great redemptive qualities. The romantic lead Sendhil Ramamurthy is certainly not one of them. After the hype about making the ladies swoon Sendhil turns out to be pretty much a ramp-walker on camera adding precious little to a badly-written part. On the other hand his puffed-up soul-mate Goldy Notey as the fat girl with no marriage prospects fills up the screen with her affectionate warmth.
It’s Shabana Azmi who finally lifts this creaking protesting piece of zonked-out what-you-may-call-it from the zone of the groan. Infusing an intuitive candour to her eccentric larger-than-life character Shabana lifts almost every sagging scene with her muted empathy towards characters who are incomplete and unsubstantiated not only because they play ghosts but because they’ve been written as shadowy figures signifying a genre-breaking defiance rather than any real connect with the British Indian community.
Where are the real warm-hearted characters from Bend It Like Beckham in this one? Ironically, the most real character in this ode to the spirit of maternal over-protectiveness is a British girl names Linda (played with effective self-irony by Sally Hawkins). Lately returned from India after a spiritually enlightening experience Linda’s passion for Indian spiritualism in many ways defines the Westerner’s quest for nirvana that makes them look ridiculous to the outsider.
In many ways the same holds true of the film. It tries so hard to move away from the stereotypes of the diaspora cinema that it ends up entering the territory of the tripped-out. The elements from the dead that pursue the harrowed mom are so baroque in their other-worldliness you wonder how they ever thought they could link themselves to the fate of an unmarried Indian girl.
To compound my eyes I saw It’s A Wonderful Afterlife in its weird Hindi dubbed version where the British characters speak Hindi like caricatural Pathani characters in Bollywood films. Whoever advised the director Gurinder Chadha to dub in Hindi is not her friend.
What was she thinking when she embarked on this voyage of the spooks in search of baroque ki manzil?
If you are a diehard Shabana Azmi fan like I am, you could watch this film for the sheer joy of seeing her take over the show without getting in the way of the scary humbug that sticks out of every nook and corner.
But if you are a fan of Gurinder Chadha’s work then rent a DVD of Bend It Like Beckham instead.