In 2002, British director Gurinder Chadha delved into the complex world of the Indian ethnic identity in present-day England. Bend It Like Beckham — a film about a talented young Indian woman living in London with impressive soccer skills — places the main character’s European-influenced social life against the strict religious expectations of her Indian-born parents.
This year, Chadha again attempted to draw viewers into the clash that occurs when traditional Indian culture meets postmodern realities, but her latest — It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, which premiered last week at Sundance 2010 — fails on so many levels.
In the opening scene, a man is rushed into the emergency room because he was forced to eat massive amounts of Indian food. But before there are any answers to his peculiar situation, his abdomen literally explodes like a volcano spewing curry everywhere.
Told in a light-hearted tone similar to Bend It Like Beckham, the story moves on from exploding stomachs to introduce a slightly overweight, aging Punjab girl, Roopie, whose mother, Mrs. Sethi , is pressuring her to search for the right mate.
Unbeknownst to Roopie, however, her mother has murdered a handful of people who have rejected her daughter as a bride. The detective assigned to the cases is a good-looking man, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy (of the T.V. show Heroes), and it becomes painfully obvious early on that he will be the film’s acceptable love interest.
As if the death-by-overeating premise wasn’t ridiculous enough, the plot’s main conflict hinges on the fact that the ghosts of Mrs. Sethi’s disgruntled victims follow her around and will not disappear until either she is dead or her daughter gets married.
As unique as this idea sounds, the conflict it creates is weak because nothing is really at stake. The film does not attempt to draw the audience into what might happen if these ghosts don’t go away. Who cares if Roopie doesn’t get married?
These ghosts will simply follow Mrs. Sethi around and mess around with her, which is probably to her benefit anyway because Mrs. Sethi seems lonely, and her irrational actions show that the woman might need some social interaction.
Also, Roopie, our supposed protagonist, isn’t very likeable. She doesn’t have a strong desire to go after anything, and her desire to face overwhelming obstacles — such as her mother and her weight — is nonexistent.
If the positive reaction from a portion of the audience is any indication, this film does connect with a certain demographic — single females over the age of 40. The only reason, however, is because they canrelate to the mother’s perspective of yearning for her daughter to be married. But, from a storytelling angle, most moviewatchers will be unable to connect with her struggle.
Chadha’s presentations both before and after the film were also embarrassing, showing her to be pretentious and self-ingratiating. Before the screening, she told the audience that there are elements of Frank Capra in the film and that she hoped he was with us watching. Because there was minimal Capra influence in the film, the comment simply made Chadha look bad.
Andy Warhol once said, “Everyone will get 15 minutes of fame,” and, during the post-screening Q&A session, the director — continuing the narcissism — attempted to get hers. She continued to take audience questions even after a Sundance official gave her three requests to stop, and her final answer was lengthy, milking every second of stage time.
Although the film was picked up by a distributer, don’t waste your money and, most importantly, two precious hours of life watching this movie when it is released.