Deepa Mehta’s latest is a classic example of what happens when a respected and capable director gets so famous and achieves such international recognition that nobody around is willing to speak the truth to him/her. The intentions of Heaven on Earth( titled Videsh in India) are honorable; domestic violence, espectially in immigrant homes where the bride arrives from India without support systems in place, is a serious issue. The director herself introduces the subject in the opening sequences of the movie.
Chand Grewal ( Preity Zinta) comes to Canada as a new bride, never having met her in-laws before the day she arrives from India. At first her new family seems welcoming and normal but the relationship turns abusive almost immediately. Shocked by her circumstances and powerless to change them, Chand retreats into a sort of fugue state in times of stress, muttering lines from a fairy tale her mother told her as a child. She is put to work in a local garments factory ( the pay of course goes right to her husband) and befriends a Jamaican co-worker who recognizes the signs of abuse and tries to help her out.
At this point the movie veers into fantasy territory. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but viewers familiar with Girish Karnad’s play Nagamandala will figure out what’s coming without any trouble. Chand’s ordeal gives her the strength to leave the marriage.
Preita Zinta gives the performance of a lifetime and surely deserves an award for this. She subsumes herself in the role better that the mainstream Bollywood star can ever hope to do and projects a vulnerability that will bring tears to your eyes. Sadly, the movie does not do justice to the issue she represents. The film has many scenes reflecting Chand’s powerlessness and the lack of support from her family back home, yet suddenly at the end Chand packs up and leaves, passport in hand. Where will she go? Who’s helping her?
Deepa Mehta makes a plea to victims of domestic abuse to reach out for institutional help ( WNI has featured Narika among the prominent advocates for such women in the Bay Area) but nowhere are these important organizations mentioned in the movie. Ultimately Chand finds the courage in herself and breaks away from her situation on her own, a choice not available to many women terrorised by their husband’s families and financially dependent on them. Also the scenes with the snake are just too far-fetched for this movie which touches upon a real, contemporary and relevant subject..domestic abuse is no fantasy.
Heaven on Earth feels like an indulgence on the part of the director. There is no doubt that Deepa Mehta is competent. Each scene is shot with sensitivity and she is really good at portraying disfunctional families and cruel behavior. But overall the movie does not work. It seems hastily made and feels like it is pandering to the issue of domestic violence.