Remember when Gurinder Chadha was good? Bhaji on the Beach. The charming What's Cooking? And then came Bend It Like Beckham, a film that, in one short, snappy multi-cultural moment, dealt with modern Indian life, teenage friendships and romance, did it all with charm and wit and, in the process, launched two new female stars.
Things boded well that here was a modern female voice to, if not revolutionise multi-cultural British cinema, then to at least give it the kick up the backside it needed. And then came Bride & Prejudice and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging to show that, really, what she apparently wanted to do was garish, laboured and embarrassing romantic comedies. However, even with that dip in form, nothing can prepare you for the jaw-dropping car crash that is It's A Wonderful Afterlife.
Annoyingly, the premise is a good one. An Indian widow, Mrs Sethi (Azmi), wants just one thing before she dies and that's to see her daughter Roopi (Notay) happily married. Unfortunately, by certain standards, Roopi isn't an ideal catch. She's not slender and she's not what you'd call beautiful. She's also fiercely independent, passionate about her career, intelligent, witty and caring. By modern UK standards, Roopi's a good catch. By old-fashioned Indian standards ... not so much.
With family after family rejecting Roopi, Mrs Sethi finally snaps and goes on a culinary-inspired revenge killing spree, dispatching victims with a rolling pin, a gag of nan dough, a ludicrously spicy curry, a tikka skewer and a poisoned sweet. Her satisfaction, however, is short-lived as the ghosts of her victims return to haunt her because they cannot move on until their murderer is dead. Mrs Sethi is happy to kill herself – a feeling the audience will empathise with long before the end – but wants to see her daughter married first. The spirits realise their best bet is to help Roopi find her soul mate before the police close in on the “Curry Killer”. The problem is that the best match is an old family friend (Ramamurthy, seriously slumming it after Heroes) who also just happens to be the investigating officer.
In other hands, this could have been a smart cultural comedy with a fine line in black humour. Chadha though bludgeons it to death with a script that telegraphs every joke (and how did a “currying favour” line EVER get through the pre-production process), labours every point and then shoehorns in ever more desperate measures to pad out the running time. You anticipate a Bollywood dance number or two in any Indian-themed movie, so those are more easily forgiven than the pointless yoga class montage (ooh, look at the unfunny spirits trying to do stretches) or, in the movie's lowest point (and there are oh so many candidates for that honour) when Roopi's best friend (Sally Hawkins, doing the same annoying, kooky schtick as always) turns into Stephen King's Carrie at her engagement party.
The cast, particularly Azni and Notay, work hard to keep things moving along but it's a pointless struggle. If you start cooking with poor quality meat, no end of spicing is going to hide the fact. The same applies to films: no amount of dressing up can hide the fact that they've started with something seriously substandard. Truly painful, horribly judged, atrociously written and appallingly directed. It may well be a wonderful afterlife but this is definitely an utterly shit film.