Channeling the peculiar charms and challenges of life for Anglo-Indian Londoners may seem like an unusually parochial obsession for a filmmaker, but since 2000 Gurinder Chadha has done a better-than-average job of embossing that parochialism with an uncommonly commercial charm. Despite misfires like Bride and Prejudice, Chandha's Bend it Like Beckham remains a popular favorite, and that should bode fairly well for It's a Wonderful Afterlife, a kind of Ealing Comedy throwback that is arguably her best film since Beckham. That's unlikely to translate into much up-front theatrical release coin given Dignity Distribution's extremely limited distribution reach. But positive word of mouth should help seed better returns into ancillary markets and beyond.
Written by Chadha and her husband, writer/director Paul Mayeda Berges, It's a Wonderful Afterlife takes a bit of time to sew its seeds, at first appearing to be some kind of supernatural murder mystery centering on a series of food-related murders in London's Indian community. The inspector in charge (Mark Addy) rightly figures that someone close to the community would help unravel matters, and so assigns the stunningly good-looking detective Murthy (Sendhil Ramamurthy) to do some digging. Along the way, he bumps into an old acquaintance, Mrs. Sethi (veteran actress Shabana Azmi) and the frumpy but outgoing daughter she's desperately trying to marry off, Roopi (Goldy Notay).
It's here that the film takes an abrupt and welcome detour when the ghosts of the murder victims all return, still bearing the implements of their demise. Initially, they're seeking the release that will enable them to reincarnate, but they quickly become sidetracked by the hope of making an unlikely match between detective Murthy and Roopi.
It's an admittedly far-fetched plot with more than its share of silly detours and awkward sidebars, but Chadha's and Berges' gift has always been their ability to imbue even the most improbable of tales with earnest sentiment. In this case, they have the added blessing of working with a wonderful cast, particularly Sally Hawkins as Roopi's guru obsessed, psychic best friend; essentially a repackaged version of Whoopi Goldberg's character from Ghost, though in Hawkins' very gifted hands, it still feels fresh and resolutely funny.
There seems little doubt that Chadha and Berges meant to intentionally construct something along the lines of a modern Ealing Comedy with a heavy dose of David Lean's 1945 film adaptation of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit thrown in for good measure. That ultimately makes for a story that feels far more old fashioned than anachronistic, a refreshingly spry romantic comedy that never loses sight of the fact that levity and love, even against the darkest and most unlikely of backdrops, always prevail.
Distributor: UTV Communications
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Goldy Notay, Sendhil Ramamurthy and Sally Hawkins
Director/Producer: Gurinder Chadha
Screenwriter: Gurinder Chadha & Paul Mayeda Berges
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Rating: PG-13 for drug content and comic violent images.
Running time: 100 min
Release date: October 8 ltd.