MRS SETHI: A KILLER COOK
To play the character of Roopi's mother, the inimitable Mrs Sethi, Chadha turned to a woman she describes as "the Meryl Streep of India", Shabana Azmi, a superstar in her own country, and a veteran of more than a hundred films. "Shabana is in her 50s but is eye-catchingly beautiful. She has played every role imaginable but she's never played an British Asian mother, a Punjabi mother, and she was really excited," says Chadha.
"She read the script and said, 'I'm going to put on weight, too.' And blimey, I wasn't expecting her to put on that much weight. She really wanted to get that 'three stomachs syndrome' that a lot of older Indian women have. And she achieved that -- she had a glorious triple stomach -- and she loved it, because she's usually so glamorous. I didn't need to give her any padding!"
Fox adds, "Shabana is a beautiful, fantastic actress and iconic in India. She's someone who Gurinder has wanted to work with for a long time and was quite hell-bent on having her in this film. She has been brilliant- an extraordinary woman and has been a huge role model on set."
Even though the blend of genres proved something of a departure for Azmi, she had no trouble adapting to the role. "Shabana's a consummate actress," says Chadha, "so on the acting side she had no trouble at all. As soon as she got to London, the first thing she wanted to do was to hang out with my mum and all my aunties. She came to a couple of parties, and she dressed, talked and acted like them. It was wonderful. And my family was so in awe of her. In fact, it was a bit embarrassing; I had to stop them from asking for autographs and pictures!"
According to the actress, the character of Mrs Sethi was a joy to play. "She's very concerned about her daughter getting on in years," says Azmi. "She's heartbroken and she's so fat! Mrs Sethi loves her daughter, though, and so she does take these rather extreme measures against people who have been rude or difficult with her daughter. They've been very uncharitable, so there's no conflict in her heart. These people didn't even give her chance, even though she's such a beautiful person. In her head, she is prepared: that this is the thing to do. But she's completely unprepared for the fact that these people she killed will return as spirits and start to hound her!"
THE BLITHE SPIRITS
When Mrs Sethi picks off her victims, she thinks that they will never trouble her family again. She is quite wrong. One day, when working away in her kitchen the four people she's killed suddenly confront her in their spirit forms. "When the spirits arrive in the kitchen for the first time, Mrs Sethi is absolutely terrified and the first thing she grabs is a pressure cooker," smiles Chadha. "Now, to most people, that's just a heavy saucepan, but for an Indian it's the funniest thing in the world because every Indian household has a pressure cooker, and every Indian has grown up with that blasted whistling sound when mum puts the dhal on! It's a funny object for us. That's an in-joke for British Indians. And there are little asides in Punjabi, as with Bend It Like Beckham, that Indians will get. But there is so much comedy that comes from the spirits, and that is universal.
"We have the wonderful Sanjeev Bhaskar as Curry Man, and other actors from Bend It Like Beckham, and Bhaji on the Beach. One of my favourite actresses in Britain is Shaheen Khan who plays Kebab Woman. She was the mum in Bend It Like Beckham. Actually, she was devastated with her role in this, because I always make her out to be an old battleaxe! She carries the spirit world very well, though."
The spirits' unusual names -- along with Curry Man and Kebab Woman, we meet Rolling Pin Woman and Nan Man-- stem from their unusual deaths, every one meeting their end courtesy of the contents of Mrs Sethi's kitchen. "I play Kebab Woman who was originally known as Manjit Kaur but after she was killed by Mrs. Sethi she ended up being known as Kebab Woman," laughs actress Shaheen Khan. "She's called that because she gets skewered. As a spirit, she's got this skewer through her neck." She smiles. "Actually, when you meet her ghost, there are some chicken wings still on the skewer!"
Sanjeev Bhaskar, meanwhile, plays Curry Man. "I think he's originally called Bobby from Ludihana, which is a town in Punjab," he says. "He's slightly chauvinistic and he thinks he's a bit of a hit with the girls and gets his comeuppance very early on in the film. He then spends the rest of the film trying to prove that he's still got it. It's a fun character to play."
Along with Curry Man and Kebab Woman, we also meet Rolling Pin Woman and Nan Man. "I'm called Rolling Pin Woman only because I've been killed with a rolling pin," says actress Adlyn Ross, who tackled the role. "It's a brilliant script; it all happens in Ealing where Mrs. Sethi wants to find a match for her daughter. She wants to see her happy and settled and some people get in her way, people who have rejected her daughter because she is rather plump or whatever. Really, while there are ghosts and a lot of comedy in the film, it's a lovely story of a mother doing anything for her child, out of pure love."
Ash Varrez, meanwhile, plays Nan Man. "It's great to play a spirit," he says, "even though the prosthetics take up to three hours to apply. They had to paint this thing over my face, and paint little sores on and cuts and bruises on my face and hands. And I've got this thing on my mouth so that all I can do is mumble. I'm the best mumbler in the world."
The final spirit is Mrs Goldman, Mrs Sethi's neighbour and friend, played by Zoë Wanamaker. She is killed by accident. "Zoë Wanamaker plays the Jewish neighbour," explains Chadha. "I met Zoë and really liked her, she's sparky and spunky and she really got it. It's not an easy script to read - you have to suspend disbelief and not worry about the murders and ghosts and how it will all work. You've got to have faith in me as a director when you read the script and Zoë really got it. She's never really played Jewish before. Why Jewish? It's quite Ealing, and funny, and our feelings toward family, marriage and community are similar."
Wanamaker adds, "My character is a neighbour to Mrs Sethi and they're both widows; they both have daughters about the same age. Really, the whole story is about learning that you can change, and that you can do good even when you're dead, which is very encouraging. If you do good in the world, then you can pass on happily. For me, the story felt unique and yet also akin to those Ealing comedies that felt quite outrageous, which stretched the boundaries of credibility to a point where you just accept it. It's like Harry Potter in the sense that you don't question for a moment that these things can happen.
"It's really the situations that make the comedy," continues Wanamaker, "how human beings react to these crazy situations. And genre-wise, it's a real amalgam. That's why Gurinder is so clever. It's about being Indian in England, and what's great is that Britain has to accept that India is part of our culture. We are now multicultural and that's why I like this script and the film."
FAMILY, FRIENDS… AND THE POLICE
Along with Mrs Sethi, her daughter and the recently revived spirits, the film hosts a number of memorable supporting players, including Jazz, played by Ray Panthaki, whose Roopi's boisterous brother. "Jazz is kind of the younger brother and a bit of a black sheep," says Panthaki, "the wild boy, he lives for his DJing and his music. He's very much a stoner. So him and his best mate spend their days getting wasted and just kind of cause trouble round the house. They live in one another's pockets, causing trouble, and mischief, and generally winding up my mother, Mrs Sethi, and my sister, Roopi."
Also looming large in Roopi's life is her best friend, Linda, played by Sally Hawkins, and this character is, in a way, rather like a modern-day version of the Margaret Rutherford character in Blithe Spirit. Linda has travelled to India, enjoyed a 'mystical experience', and, as it transpires, she is the only other person (bar Mrs Sethi) who can actually see the spirits. "My character is quite extreme, perhaps a little kooky," explains Hawkins. "She's Roopi's best friend. She's returned from India having had a spiritual experience. Something has happened for her - she spent time in an ashram and it quite affected by it. It's had a real effect on her and she's developed this spiritual side. She's come back more deranged than when she left and believes she has a psychic ability. No one takes her seriously until the end."
Linda is engaged to Dev, played by Jimi Mistry. "He's the fiancé of Linda. He's from a very rich background and he met her in some yoga retreat in India," says the actor. "He definitely has got this edge to him and also I had to kind of contend with the idea that he obviously falls for Linda, tells her everything she wants to hear, they end up obviously going to get married but then, not to give too much away, it doesn't all go to plan. In a way he's got to be a lovable berk, someone the audience likes but also want to cheer when he gets his comeuppance in the end. He is one of those classic caddish characters."
Rounding out the supporting cast come the police offices charged with investigating the unusual string of murders. Leading the investigation is D.I. Smyth, played by Mark Addy and D.S. Murthy, played by Heroes' Sendhil Ramamurthy. "D.I. Smyth," is kind of an old school copper," says Addy. "He relies on his hunches and his instincts really rather than anything else. These four murders have taken place and they're kind of curry related, that's about as much as we know to start with. It's handy having Murthy on board because he understands the culture. Hopefully he's going to give us some insights rather than fall in love with the chief suspect but there we are. The best-laid plans don't always go the way they should."
A HAPPILY EVER AFTER…AND AFTER....AND AFTER...AND AFTER...'
The ever-after has more than one meaning in Chadha's film. With the spirits learning that they must perform a good deed to earn their passage through the life hereafter, they must help Roopi (the girl to whom so many of them were so very mean before their murder) with her own happily ever-after. That comes in the form of a blossoming romance between Roopi and copper-cum-family-friend D.S. Murthy, played by heartthrob Ramamurthy.
"My character is kind of an outsider," says Ramamurthy. "He knows Roopi and her mum, although it is a long time since he has been associated with them. And he comes in as this detective who is going under cover and turns out spying on old family friends. So he has a unique perspective, he is not from the area, he doesn't really know the lay of he land, which suits him in a way as he tries to find out who is committing these murders. But then he ends up falling in love with Roopi, his chief suspect.
"The relationship is a really slow brew, certainly the way I played it. There isn't love at first sight or anything like that. The way I played it was he actually does fall in love with her as a person because she is genuinely a very sweet and endearing character, certainly the way that Goldy plays her. The physical attraction then follows."
As well as playing Roopi's love interest, Murthy also works as something of a straight-man for the spirits and their comedy antics. "I am very, very much the straight man although whacky high jinks are going on around me," he smiles. "Basically the ghost characters provide the comedy and I am kind of the straight guy who they bounce off. I help them to look funny."
According to Notay, Roopi, too, is something of a straight-woman. "I don't have a lot of funny lines," she says. "She is more of the normal girl who happens to be bigger but isn't someone who's telling jokes and so forth. I didn't do anything with her to make her funny; I just tried to find something that would make her as realistic as possible. So I observed a lot of my friends to try and find things I could embody. She's a collection of a lot of my friends who I've observed. I would make notes drawn from them.
"Their relationship is so lovely though," Notay continues. "There's a wonderful scene that I have with Sendhil. We had to film our first kiss down at the Southbank and for some reason I suspected that there wouldn't be many people there. But there was more than I was thinking; there were hundreds of people standing around taking pictures and I got really nervous. But then I allowed that energy that was there to kind of take over and it was an exhilarating day."
Even though love blossoms between Roopi and D.S. Murthy, Chadha says that it was vital that Roopi didn't lose all her weight to snare her man. "At the end she's not much slimmer," says the writer-director, "she just looks after herself, dresses better and is shining from the inside, because she's more at ease with who's she is. She still a large girl but is more confident."
IT'S A WONDERFUL SOUND
Along with a true visual feast, the film also promises an audio treat, too, with Chadha, as always, ending up securing a top-notch soundtrack and score. "Music is so important in all my films," she says, "and we've got this fantastic score by Craig Pruess, my usual composer, where he's gone totally Ealing, and very Ladykillers! As a score, It's a playful mix of spooky and fun and a very contemporary British Asian soundtrack". What's wonderful is that artists I knew from the Bhaji on the Beach days, they've really developed and the tracks they've produced are outstanding. As a British Asian, that delights me: the British-Asian music scene has really revolutionised the music scene in India. They're now huge artists in India, but they're all people I've known for 15 years. It's very up to the minute. But I've also got some lovely Western songs that audiences will recognise, and a very fun Bhangra re-working of Staying Alive that I asked Bally Sagoo to do because he fuses music so wickedly. I think everyone will love that."