Dir. Deepa Mehta.Canada 2008. 106 min.
The yearnings and travails of an Indian emigre bride, a subject recently given a pictorial, naturalistic treatment inBrick Lane, gets a grittier, more mystical workout in Deepa Mehta’s slow-burning and quietly potentHeaven on Earth.
The seventh feature of the Toronto-based director opened on a wave of high expectation, buttressed by strong festival support for her elements trilogy, Fire, Earth and Water. While Heaven on Earth may not win Mehta any new acolytes, it is a magnetic piece of narrative filmmaking that should build upon the international sales history of the trilogy’s first two films and rekindle indie-house interest in the filmmaker’s introspective style, following ‘Water”s failure to make much of a sales splash.
Adapting from a 1989 play based on an old Indian folk tale, Mehta traces the plight of Chand (Zinta), an educated, demure young woman who is spirited away from Punjab’s industrial city of Ludhiana for an arranged marriage in Brampton, a Toronto suburb known by many as ‘Bramladesh’ for its dense South Asian community.
The three-generation household Chand is thrust into belies the celestial promise of the film’s title. Her husband Rocky (Bhardwaj) is a smoldering hothead who drives a limo to provide for a clutching, tradition-bound mother (Johal), an ineffectual dad (Cheema), and a deadbeat brother-in-law with a working wife (Kaur) and two kids.
Unable to articulate his resentments, Rocky takes his rage out in volcanic attacks on his new bride, who he beats within the impassive earshot (and sometimes eyeshot) of the rest of the family. The suffocating lack of control with which Chand exists extends to the factory she toils at alongside her sister-in-law; any glimmer of economic independence is instantly quashed when she learns her earnings are being funneled directly to her husband.
A strand of hope arrives in the sisterly personage of Rosa (McIntosh), a Jamaican-Canadian co-worker who gives Chand a magical root to put in Rocky’s food, insisting it will transform him into a fool for love. The results are decidedly mixed, as Rocky morphs mysteriously between tender lover and demon husband. Is Chand going mad’ Is Rocky’ Or is his emergent lothario side a manifestation of some fantasy state that Chand has concocted as a survival mechanism’
Mehta keeps all possibilities open, maintaining an air of ambiguity that is alternately tantalizing and exasperating. She has a compelling vessel for the bereft and bemused Chand in Zinta, who poignantly plays against the ‘cool-chick’ persona for which she is renowned on the Bollywood circuit. Bhardwaj is less convincing as the mercurial Rocky, whose simmering-to-boil mannerisms fall into a pendulous monotony. Part of the problem can be attributed to Mehta’s script, which dances around the root causes of the husband’s anger.
Immigrant audiences of every nationality may more readily connect to Mehta’s minimalist strategies, which also include grainy, hand-held photography (by the fine Giles Nuttgens) and black-and-white interludes which amplify the characters’ fish-out-of-water disorientation. The intermittent use of black and white is bound to confound audience members not on Mehta’s wavelength, who may scramble for meanings that are simply not there.
In co-production with the Film Board of Canada
Rajinder Singh Cheema