Heaven On Earth – Dir: Deepa Mehta; *ing: Preity Zinta, Vansh Bhardwaj, Ramanjit Kaur, Balinder Johal
As a director, Deepa Mehta has never exactly been the most nuanced of creatures; more often than not, her work has been derivative and riddled with clichés. Whether tackling homosexuality in Fire, Partition in Earth, widowhood in Water, or Lord-knows-what in Bollywood/Hollywood, her approach has come across as leaden as a copy of the Bahishti Zevar, and about as subtle. It has been her fortune though to have worked either with good actors (Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Aamir Khan) or good-looking actors (Lisa Ray, John Abraham, Rahul Khanna) who have gamely prevented interest in her work from going down the proverbial toilet.
So from this admittedly jaded vantage point, Heaven On Earth comes as more than a pleasant surprise, it is in fact a minor revelation. There seems to be a whole other Mehta at the helm here, one who has gotten around to the notion that you don’t have to club someone over the head with a point in order to drive it home. And for the most part, it is a success.
At first glance, the film seems to be going the ‘poor, pretty Indian girl suffering domestic abuse from rat-bastard husband in the diaspora’ route, last treaded in asinine Aishawriya Rai starrer Provoked. But Mehta wisely sidesteps this trap of all-too-easy chestnuts, by instead turning it into a quasi-treatise on the diaspora experience as a whole. Her protagonist Chand (Zinta) is the fish-out-of-water married into a conservative, migrant Punjabi family in Canada, but she is no shrinking violet quivering in a corner under the shadow of a raised rolling pin; she has a little more moxie than that. Neither – thankfully – is her husband Rocky (Bhardwaj) painted in irredeemable swathes of black. As Mehta herself explains: “The abuser in this case isn’t a mono-dimensional villain. He’s under a great deal of stress to live up to his role as the family patriarch, and to take care of everyone. I had no interest in simply pointing a finger at men and saying it’s all your fault! Things are far more complicated than that. There are cultural implications and family dynamics. Sometimes just a plain lack of personal privacy can set a cycle of violence in motion because couples don’t have the space to talk through their problems.” Indeed, more than the husband, it is the matriarch (Johal) that Mehta seems more critical of, for wanting to maintain a status quo in which traditional socio-familial roles must not be questioned or challenged.
So ultimately, and admirably, then, Heaven On Earth is not about wife-beating at all. Its concerns are the issues of identity, displacement, and above all, assimilation, or the lack thereof; the failure or perhaps unwillingness of a family to assimilate itself in its adoptive society and culture, and the inability of the ‘heroine’ to assimilate herself into her adoptive family. The element of pseudo-magical realism introduced some way into the film, concerning the legend of a sheesh naag, may not be to everyone’s taste, but it gets its point across, again without bludgeoning you with it.
Mehta also must be given bonus marks for tapping hitherto undetected reserves of subtlety and emotional power in Preity Zinta, who at long last overcomes entirely her grating ‘bubbly’ persona to deliver an enormously moving performance.
Here’s hoping this is a new beginning for both.