When was the last time a film gave adequate voice to the trauma of domestic abuse, or the isolation that often accompanies immigration? Deepa Mehta’s Heaven on Earth elegantly mixes both issues, throwing in a touch of magic realism for good measure.
The film opens with a surprising burst of gaiety. Brightly clad women dance and clap across the screen, enveloping the audience in the jubilant wedding ceremony of a young Punjabi woman. Chand, the enthusiastic bride-to-be – played by Bollywood darling Preity Zinta – flashes her trademark dimpled smile even as she leaves India behind to meet her new husband.
Having changed into appropriate Indian wedding garb in the cramped airplane washroom, Chand arrives in Brampton, Ontario eager to begin her new life – until her reticent husband slaps the girlish grin off of her face.
Indian-born Canadian director Deepa Mehta is best known for her feminist filmmaking. Two of her films, Water – about an eight-year-old widow who is sent to live in an ashram – and Fire – which has lesbian themes – caused violent public outcry in India. Mehta, however, is optimistic that the universality of Heaven on Earth will make it better received.
“It’s obvious that it’s not a religious or cultural issue; it’s a social issue. Wife bashing is universal,” says Mehta.
Mehta was inspired to make the film after hearing about Mona Gill, a Punjabi woman who had the courage to leave an abusive husband and joined the police force to combat domestic violence. Since then, Mehta has talked with scores of abused women.
“I met a lot of women – in shelters, through friends…friends would say ‘you know this woman, my hairdresser’s sister – she gets the shit beaten out of her.’ It was fascinating how many women were willing to talk because they often don’t talk. That itself is shocking. You know that you get beaten and somehow feel that you deserve it and that you’re responsible,” Mehta laments in her husky, impassioned voice.
Chand’s story and her inability to communicate reflects many of these women’s tales. She arrives in a strange country, and, though she has a university degree, finds herself forced to work at a laundry factory. All of the wages she earns go directly to her husband, and she accepts the cruelty of her mother-in-law and husband for a lack of other options.
Still, the director is careful not to simplify or sensationalize; Chand’s bruises aren’t the only spectres that haunt the family home.
“People says it’s a film about domestic violence, but that’s being simplistic,” Mehta says. “It’s also about isolation, about how we absolutely, totally, and completely are unaware of our responsibility once we get the immigrants over, what happens to them, what they go through – it’s like, ‘hands off.’”
Just as the victim suffers, the victimizer also undergoes traumatic experiences. In Rocky’s case, having to be the primary breadwinner for seven people – driving an airport limousine for a living – breeds his resentment and aggression.
Repeated cuts from grainy colour scenes to black and white shots jarringly illustrate the isolation that an immigrant like Rocky faces, as he stands at Niagara Falls, faces government bureaucracy, or finds himself with a stranger for a wife. Movement between colour-coded scenes also draws us into a fluctuating reality and the magical world of Chand’s only saving grace: her imagination.
When makeup can no longer conceal Chand’s injuries, her Jamaican coworker Rosa presents her with a magic root that is designed to make Rocky fall in love with her. Here, cultural imaginations collide, and Chand takes solace in the story of Naga Mandala, an Indian play derived from a folk tale in which a snake, in the form of a husband, comforts a miserable wife. When a cobra in Rocky’s form begins to visit Chand, the audience sees an eerily different side of the abusive husband and a Jekyll-and-Hyde dichotomy emerges.
This imaginative, magical duality is pivotal to Mehta.
The Rocky that Chand invents – the “good Rocky” – embodies what her husband could be, the director said. “It helped me focus on the victimizer being the victim and on the incredible power of imagination,” Mehta explains. “What do we do when we have no recourse? Some people have long conversations with God and nobody questions that – whether it’s an invisible God, or a God in a book or a God on a cross…Chand creates this world to help herself.”
Heaven On Earth ends on an ambiguous note: Chand shuts the door on Rocky, and we’re left wondering if she will survive alone in this hostile country. “Once the door opens and closes on Rocky, it’s finished,” she adds. “If Chand can do this, she can do anything – it would be redundant to show her hailing a cab or saying ‘take me to the airport’ or ‘take me to Rosa’s house.’”
“What is it that we all want more than anything? We want freedom. Freedom of choice,” explains Mehta. “I gave her what I think is the most important – I gave my character the ability to walk out.”