The premise is familiar. It’s the story of our mothers, our sisters, sometimes our own: The girl needs to find a man who will marry her and, then, and only then, by additive association, and, ironically, after being handed over from father to groom like a thing, she will be considered fully human. This putrid notion of marriage as the sole route for a woman’s wholesomeness is the ground for It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, a magical realist comedy about the idealization of state-sanctioned heterosexual coupledom.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), the film follows Mrs. Sethi’s (Shabana Azmi) failed attempts at arranging a suitable husband of Indian descent for her daughter Roopi (the great Goldy Notay), who is always turned down for being too fat and not waxing her moustache. After so many rejections, Mrs. Sethi starts to kill anyone who speaks badly of her daughter; a specially prepared, inhumanly spicy curry is her weapon of choice. But the murder victims come back as ghosts to haunt her. When the ghosts realize they can only move on and reincarnate if Mrs. Sethi herself dies, which she’s willing to do (she is a widow after all, so why bother with life?), they demand she kills herself. But she will only do it and set the ghosts free once she has found a husband for her daughter. Never mind that she has a son too (“He’s a boy, it’s different,” she says).
The film shows an Indian community in Britain intent on reproducing a system that takes girls’ agency away and reduce them to their bodies. Of course, there’s nothing exclusively Indian about such an arrangement, and that’s part of the film’s universal intelligibility. “Why don’t you ever ask me about my work, or who I’m voting for,” Roopi complains to her mother at one point. And while the answer comes coated in a rhetoric of “I’d like you to experience the joy your father and I had,” we can hear in the mother’s speech the prerequisite blindness behind the need for some kind of ontological belonging. Not everyone can afford to be Joan of Arc. Yet, ultimately, the film echoes that same drive for an uninterrupted status quo since it is only when Roopi is “properly” waxed and fashionably accessorized that she becomes self-confident enough to attract guys and to turn them down herself. And even then, the flesh proves too weak for it to stand on its own and she goes running back to her comely suitor.