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It’s A Wonderful Afterlife – Gurinder Chadha interview

Gurinder Chadha directs It's A Wonderful Afterlife

Interview by Rob Carnevale

GURINDER Chadha talks about how she intends to surprise people with her new genre-defying comedy It’s A Wonderful Afterlife, why she chose to homage Alien and Carrie and what it means to be a mother and a director, and the difficulty of juggling both.

Q. The film opens with a stomach exploding with curry in an obvious homage to John Hurt’s scene in Alien. Did you ever think that might be going too far for a first scene and might put people off?
Gurinder Chadha: Well, the first scene in the film is a little bit in your face, but then so is the rest of the movie. The idea was to start off then where we intended to go. I think when you come and see the film there’s a certain sort of expectation that it’s going to be like Bend It Like Beckham, or something like that, and by putting that right in the first minute it’s me letting you know that, no, you’re not seeing that film; this is a different sort of film. Hopefully, it allows the audience to realise that… it is a little bit out there but it enables them to relax and know the movie they’re about to see.

Q. Did you do anything to surprise your cast members like Ridley Scott did with that Alien scene?
Gurinder Chadha: Yes, we didn’t tell the actors what was going to happen. Only Sanjeev [Bhaskar, the patient] knew what was about to happen, but the hospital people didn’t know. So, the first time it happened they were completely surprised by it – so much so that they actually all moved away, so didn’t get any curry on them [laughs]. So, we had to do it again and I had to say: “Don’t move… because I need it [the curry] to be all over your faces!”

Q. Was it curry?
Gurinder Chadha: It was a mixture of gelatine and bits of sponge to look like chicken and stuff to look like peas. But I’ve always had a family or female audience, but this gross out element has given me a whole new audience of young boys. That’s my positive spin on it [laughs]. But that scene was originally much longer and I felt it was too gross out and not comedic enough. So, it was re-cut.

But that was a good lesson for the whole movie because the hardest thing about it was maintaining the tone all the way through. We were going from pure comedy to pure gross out to little bit scary to romance to tears and then moving to a spiritual/dying ending. So, the hardest thing was making sure the audience came with me and were in the same movie.

Sometimes, when we were shooting, we weren’t. And I was definitely out of my comfort zone because of the different genres. It’s not what I do. But that was a good thing because it did push me. It was only when we had the first assembly that I looked at it and thought: “Oh my God, what is this film?” It was all over the place in its purest state, but in the editing we brought it back.

Q. Did you ever wonder whether people would buy into the concept of ghosts, particularly when set against the realism of being set in Ealing!
Gurinder Chadha: I didn’t think that, no, because there was a wonderful film called Blithe Spirit that I had referenced and the ghost in that was wonderful, although she was green. It was a little bit trickier for me… we tried green paint on the ghosts but the green didn’t work on the brown skin. So, we changed it to grey. But I didn’t worry about the ghost side of it because I thought it would work fine. But I really liked Shaun of the Dead… I thought that was a really innovative movie for Britain and so I wanted to go into that territory and I knew that I could do something quite funny with that. But it was combining it with all the other elements that was difficult.

Q. You’re obviously a big fan of Carrie?
Gurinder Chadha: Yes. Carrie was sort of the first horror film I ever saw and so it left a huge impact on me. The way this really came together was that I was watching a clip on TV… one of those 100 Great Family Films, of Bend It Like Beckham. They’d selected the wedding scene and I was watching it and thinking how much I loved shooting it – it had all my relatives and friends in it. I thought I’d never be able to make another film with a wedding scene… unless I subvert it and that’s when I had the idea of having a wedding scene but turning it into the Prom scene from Carrie and make everything turn on its head. Once I had that in my head, I wanted to see that scene.

So, that’s how it came together – me wanting to be in the cinema to see that scene. And that’s what I love to do: come up with ideas for films that no one else has made but that I would really love to see; particularly featuring the West London Asian community. So, the idea of ghosts on their own wasn’t particularly funny, but having old Indian women as ghosts was funny to me. And the same with Carrie… just doing a Carrie scene on its own wasn’t funny, but having old Indian women having samosas and curry thrown at them is funny. So, it’s taking those moments and putting the cultural spin on them.

Also, people like me are expected to make certain kinds of films, or issue-based movies… no one would ever expect me to make a really goofy, shlocky movie. So, that’s another reason I did it. And for the Indian audience it’s like a breath of fresh air to see our film in one of these kind of movies because no one makes movies with Indian ghosts.

Q. What is the take on ghosts in the Indian culture?
Gurinder Chadha: Normally we have reincarnation, so you’ll find that it’s a pretty common theme in Bollywood films where someone has come back as a reincarnation of someone else. So, they have certain knowledge that only the person who died knew… but they’re a living, breathing person. So, rather than ghosts it’s more a reincarnation storyline.

Q. We sometimes hear actors complaining of there being a very short list of subject matters involving Indian characters… and one of them is arranged marriages. You’ve gone and done that here, so what do you feel about that?
Gurinder Chadha: Well, I think that I’ve done it but with a spin that you wouldn’t expect. I’ve taken it to its extreme: here’s a mother who can’t get what she wants, so she starts murdering people. That’s taking it to its extreme. But on the other hand I think it’s a very salient point that girls who don’t look size 8 and aren’t fair and beautiful are unmarriageable and therefore worthless in our community. So, there are still points to be made. I mean, in our culture, marriage is the be all and end all of a woman’s existence. If you’re not married by a certain age, or don’t have children by a certain age, it involves the whole family and therefore the whole community.

Q. What sort of age?
Gurinder Chadha: I would say 40 and then it’s all over.

Q. We’ve had a massive change in British-Asian people making or appearing in movies. What do you think the next generation of British-Asian filmmakers will be addressing? Will there subjects be less to do with gender and culture issues?
Gurinder Chadha: I think it’ll be a bit of both. The reason I do what I do is that I find that community gives me an endless source of humour. When I entered the business, my whole purpose was to promote and make us visible because we were very much on the margins. So, I wanted to make us mainstream. My work has helped to mainstream-ise the Asian community.

For instance, we had the Asian story as one of the top stories on EastEnders over Christmas, and you have that reality show with the Indian family. When I was growing up, though, any time an Indian was on telly, everyone would be like: “Quick, quick… there’s an Indian on TV!” So, it’s changed a lot over the past 20 years. So, now I feel that this has been achieved I feel that I’m moving in a different sort of direction now. I’m making decisions about making films that are much more about what I want to make. I did this because I wanted to make a fun, goofy movie. But I think you’ll also have the M Night Shyamalans who just want to make thrillers, or cop movies, or those kind of genre movies.

Q. So you’re released from the burden of being representative?
Gurinder Chadha: Yes, yes, yes… but I have another terrible burden on me, which is that everyone always wants me to make Bend It Like Beckham over and over again. I’m in that groundhog day.

Q. Talking of the spiritual side of things, you’ve said that being in a post-pregnancy hormonal state that had brought some spiritual thoughts into your mind…
Gurinder Chadha: Well, I think when you have a baby, as soon as you’re a mother or parent, you start thinking of death because you see the opposite of life. I’ve calmed down now but for the first year, or two years, I kept thinking: “Oh my God, if I die what’s going to happen to the child?” And so you realise how vulnerable they are, but how critical your own life is because they’re so dependent on you. You do feel your own mortality. I kept saying to myself: “OK, when they’re 18, I’ll be ‘x’; so if they get married at 30, I’ll be ‘x’… will I get to see grandchildren?” So, since they’ve been born I’ve been thinking about death the whole time [laughs].

Q. How do you juggle raising kids and making films in what is still often described as a male dominated industry – particularly when it comes to directing?
Gurinder Chadha: Well, I think there was a time when I first started that there was such a thing called ‘a woman’s film’ and there were certain scripts that women would make. But I think that’s changed a lot now. I think that if a woman director walks into a room with a script, it doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is, or the genre is, so long as the financers feel that the woman has the skills to make the film. I think this last year was great… so many women directors were Bafta nominated and, of course, Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar was a big result.

Q. And how about the challenge of juggling being a mother with directing a movie?
Gurinder Chadha: It is hard directing. The hours are terrible and you have to sort of suspend your life when you’re in production. So, being a mother is very hard. I can absolutely see why there are so few women directing, because it’s physically a very demanding thing to do. Fathers can only do it because they have wives at home doing all the other stuff. I can only do it because I have a husband that helps with the kids at home. And I was lucky, because I’m at a stage in my career where I could choose to do this film now.

I wanted to still be with the kids while they were young and wanted to do something that was quick, so this was only a seven-week shoot. I also wanted to do something local, in Ealing, so I didn’t have to travel very far. It meant I could be with the kids in the morning or in the evening – but I could definitely see them at some point in the day. And they could come out to me and be with me for an hour or so. I designed this whole movie around being a mother [laughs]!

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