Heaven on Earth

4.5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: October 9, 2008
Reviewed at the 2008 Vancouver International Film Festival and for the 2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival
Like mother like son

Physical violence—except when forced by self defence—is one of the most cowardly acts that human beings wilfully engage in. For many, power over another is as vital to the ego/sense-of-worth as food is to the body/sense-of-sustenance. And when the appetite for assault is lost, their acid tongues pound away insatiably.

Perhaps the most horrific form of abuse comes from a spouse who is so desperate that his astonished—at first—partner unwittingly morphs into the punching bag of self-esteem. Surprising to many (usually those on the outside of these truly miserable relationships) is the length of time required before the victim seeks help.

With such a remarkable track record already—particularly Water, cross-reference below—few filmmakers in the world would dare tackle this too-silent subject much less craft a compelling narrative around it.

Characteristically, Deepa Mehta turns her own Punjabi culture inside and out as this tale of arranged marriage moves from ceremonial joy through the willful blindness, spanning the generational divide, to the employment of myth, magic and fable, allowing the viewer to peer deep inside this “walked into a door” pandemic.

Chand (beautifully created by Preity Zinta who grows with the role that few her age could master) travels from the comfort and security of her family in India to Canada (specifically Brampton—a rapidly expanding bedroom community north-west of Toronto near Pearson airport) to meet then wed her family’s choice of mate. The arrangement involves a $20,000 dowry and the further utilization of holy matrimony to fast track the relocation of other relatives to the land of immigrant “consultants’” failed promises and Canada’ brutal winters.

Less than 24-hours after clearing customs, Chand is lying nervously beside Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj has the sultry good looks but can’t fully communicate the inner turmoil that finds its way into his fists—especially when his mother demands an immediate demonstration of who he loves most), but the conjugal duties are postponed to the honeymoon. During the wintry sojourn to Niagara Falls, Giles Nuttgen’s camera (as it does at several key moments) shifts to grainy black-and-white even as Chand’s petulant mother-in-law, Maji (Balinder Johal’s tenor and tone are ideal for the domineering matriarch) crashes the party (seems she had a dream that her beloved son was in an accident …).

Back home (which is bursting at the seams with family and tenants—there are few secrets in this household), Chand finally lashes out at Maji then is brutally slapped by her ruthless husband when finally driven to stand up for herself. And so the cycle of unhampered abuse begins with only an embarrassed, nearly inaudible “sorry” from brother-in-law Baldev (Gourrhay Sihan) and, later, I-wonder-when-it-will-be-my-turn whimpers from his pubescent daughter, Loveleen (Geetika Sharma). It seems there is a glimmer of life in her sibling’s (Orville Maciel digs into the rebellious part with gusto) penchant for talking back to his elders, but he also stoops to pushing and shoving the weak as a means of getting what he wants.

As the bruises and humiliation mount, Chand—a college graduate—receives home and urban remedy advice from a Jamaican co-worker (herself a long-time victim) as they labour side-by-side in their menial job (ironically, tending to other people’s dirty laundry—the minimum wages go directly to Rocky) but nothing seems to work as planned.

Binding everything together is the message from Chand’s faraway mother. The frequently recited cobra’s tale has a seemingly cryptic message: “You can protect yourself without hurting anybody.” Mehta weaves the oft-told fable into present-day circumstances then begins to blur reality and hopeful hallucination into a marvellous mix of truth and consequences that culminates in a rite of passage that forever changes Chand’s ability to cope with the culturally tolerated terrors in her life. Both strands of story (old and now) climax in a trial by fire that would test anyone’s inner resolve to believe in themselves.

The narrative tension is at times weakened by this mystical journey from which Chand first seeks refuge and finally relief, but it’s probably a necessary evil to ensure that more of those who need to see this courageous film watch every frame rather than head in self-imposed shame to the exit before realizing that their own situations might well inspire their viper to put its deadly venom where it belongs. JWR

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Director/Writer - Deepa Mehta
Producer - David Hamilton
Cinematographer - Giles Nuttgens
Production Designer - Dilip Mehta
Editor - Colin Monie
Original Music - Mychael Danna
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