Published Oct 23, 2008In the opening scenes of Heaven on Earth, we learn that Chand (Preity Zinta), a young Indian woman, will move to Canada for an arranged marriage. Because all of the characters are dressed in traditional Indian clothing and because the concept of an arranged marriage is so anachronistic to the average western filmgoer, these scenes look and feel like part of a period piece.
Immediately after, we see Chand applying make-up in a modern airplane bathroom and the contrast is jarring. In films like Water, Deepa Mehta has often contrasted the role of Indian women in modern society with their role in the traditional cultural family unit to devastating effect. And with Heaven on Earth, she has made one of her most powerful films.
Arriving in Canada, Chand finds that her husband is depressive and irritable, and physically abuses her without provocation. When she mentions his beatings to a co-worker, she is told to grind a particular root into his drink, which will supposedly make him love her forever but eventually proves to have unforeseen consequences. Mehta directs with supreme confidence and is unblinking in her depiction of domestic abuse the violent scenes are harsh and startling, filmed by Mehta with unsettling intimacy.
Heaven on Earth is more than just a film about the traditional Indian family. Mehtas film is a frankly nightmarish portrait of cultural displacement. Chand, whose grasp of the English language is modest and whose understanding of Canadian society is even more negligible, is symbolic of the very common existential crises of immigrants moving westward. She is stripped of power, treated as sub-human and unfamiliar with even the simplest customs of her new country.
Preity Zinta, a big star in India, specializes in seemingly dozens of fluffy Bollywood crowd-pleasers in which her chief tasks are to look pretty and lip-synch convincingly. Her performance here is a revelation, infusing her role with surprising depth and pathos. Vansh Bhardwaj is similarly impressive as Rocky, imposing and effective in a disturbing role.
Some reviewers have complained about Mehtas decision to turn to the supernatural in the films second half but I disagree. This is one of the rare films that are completely unpredictable. (Mongrel Media)