Director: Deepa Mehta
2008 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On my way to the screening of Heaven on Earth, I drove past a church at which a wedding celebration was underway. I stopped to let a grandmother pull her grandson across the road, his tiny shoes barely touching the ground, his munchkin-size suitcoat hiking up as he gripped his grandmother’s hand. A large van obscured my view of what was going on in front of the church, but I could clearly hear music with a Middle Eastern flavor. As I passed beyond the van, I took a quick look at people in a circle dancing and clapping with their arms held high. I watched this scene as long as I could in my sideview mirror, reflecting on how this neighborhood, once Swedish Lutheran, had given way to a new immigrant community that no longer worshipped Jesus Christ in the church at which they celebrated.
As Heaven on Earth began, I found myself wrapped in another celebration—this one a prewedding party of a large group of Indian women dressed beautifully in vibrant, gold-threaded saris, armfuls of bangle bracelets, and many-tiered chandelier earrings. They danced with the joyous freedom I had seen only an hour or so ago in my hometown, preparing a beautiful bride named Chand (Bollywood star Preity Zinta) for her journey to Canada to meet her bethrothed for the first time and accustom herself to life in a new country, with a new family. I felt as though I were getting a chance to see inside the experience of a family like the one I had glimpsed only briefly, and savored the possibilities that would soon unfold in the dark theatre. I expected Chand to experience many feelings that go along with being in a strange environment among strange people. But I did not expect this radiant bride to become the extremely unhappy, isolated victim of spousal abuse.
How can any bride expect their spouse to despise and abuse them? Perhaps it is more to be expected in arranged marriages that happen long distance, but Chand didn’t seem worried. The morning before her departure, Chand’s much wiser mother, awakens her to repeat a story about a cobra. Chand sasses that she’s heard the story a hundred times. “Do you remember the moral of the story?” her mother says. “Don’t mess with a cobra!” is Chand’s response. The lesson her mother really wants her to remember is to learn to yield to difficult circumstances. It sounds like Chand’s mother has seen a good many arranged marriages and observed—perhaps lived herself—the difficulties.
When Chand’s new family meets her at the airport, they remark glowingly that she is even more beautiful than her picture. Her husband-to-be, Rocky (Vanch Bardwaj), is teased by his family for being as “as shy as a girl” upon meeting Chand. When the family arrives home, Chand learns that she is to share a small, single-story house with Rocky’s parents, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two children. Chand says little and keeps her eyes downcast in shyness and obedience.
The marriage takes place almost immediately. As Chand waits for the ceremony to start, she looks out the window. “Dear God. It’s snowing!” Instead of wonder at this new experience, one of the bridal guests just says, “Oh shit.” The splendor and solemnity of the wedding ceremony made me feel this marriage was truly blessed. When the newlyweds return to their home, Chand lays expectantly on her side, still fully dressed in her wedding regalia, awaiting her husband. When he lays down, he says, “We’re not going to do anything tonight. I’m tired.” Chand, still a virgin, might be expected to be a tad bit relieved, but the look of disappointment, of worrying that she does not please Rocky, makes the scene particularly cruel.
The couple drives to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon. When Chand asks if they can take a picture of this physical wonder, Rocky says, “Only tourists take pictures.” Their first sexual embrace never happens because Rocky’s domineering mother (Balinder Johal) arrives at their room with the excuse that she had a premonition that he was in an accident. Rocky decides that he and his brother-in-law will sleep in the car, and Chand and Maji will take the room. When Chand suggests they get another room, Rocky slaps her hard across the face. Chand begins to use her imagination to retell the cobra story in her mind as a way to soothe her, take her back to India, and find a place of her own.
Life for Chand now involves the endless drudgery of working in a laundry, even though she complains to her sister-in-law and coworker Aman (Ramanjit Kaur) that she has a degree. A Jamaican coworker (Yanna McIntosh) advises her to grate a root she gives Chand into Rocky’s drink; once he drinks it, he will fall instantly in love with her. Unfortunately, the root makes Rocky pass out. When Chand tells her friend about this, she says “You have to use the whole root.” When Chand does this and pours it into some milk, a chemical reaction occurs that causes the liquid to boil. Chand runs outside and dumps it on the ground and shakes her burned hand. In silhouette, we see a cobra rise in the foreground.
The cobra will become a nuisance to Rocky’s family, but a source of solace for Chand, as it assumes the image of her husband and comes to her as the man she would like Rocky to be. One day she stays home from work, and the cobra Rocky enters her room, where they make love. When the real Rocky learns that she has been with another man—although Chand insists she was with him—he beats her savagely. A thoroughly confused Chand speaks to the cobra Rocky once more. The cobra provides her with a means to prove she is not an adulteress and gain her freedom—one, of course, that requires her to find great courage within herself.
Indians are taught that cobras are very powerful and can assume the shape of anything they wish. Chand did not make the connection between her imagination and the miraculous appearance of a cobra in Brampton, Ontario. Indeed, Rocky refused to allow her to call her mother and denied her the calling of marriage to which she had given herself willingly. Cut off from her roots, abused and reviled by her witchy mother-in-law and the men in the family, she suffered the usual fate of domestic abuse victims. The folklore of the cobra connects directly with the first scene—the celebration of the women. It is in the suppressed feminine power that Chand finds strength and a way to defeat her abusers.
Deepa Mehta, an acclaimed director, is herself is an immigrant to Canada, and the film captures the flavor of an Indian colony in a new world. Her grasp of the dynamics of domestic violence is accurate and heartfelt—every blow Rocky lands can be felt. She uses a device of shooting Rocky and Chand as a couple in monochrome, reflecting the joylessness of their marriage and the otherworldliness of Chand’s imagination. It’s hard to understand Rocky’s attitude. Is he gay? Is he angry about being forced into an arranged marriage? Does he truly not like Chand? Or women in general? He beats Chand savagely when she pushes Maji to the floor, but when he tells his parents that they will always be his first priority, we can sense his own entrapment and resentment.
The film feels a bit long and goes slack in a couple of places, because it’s hard to know exactly how much time passes between Chand’s arrival in Canada and the end of the film. And despite Chand’s assertions that she had been with no man but Rocky, the complete lack of even discreet or suggested sex scenes made it difficult for me to believe the couple had ever consummated their marriage. Mehta, however, uses extreme close-ups to great effect, practically putting the audience into the scene and Chand’s imagination. The cast, with the exception of newcomer Bardwaj, are very affecting and individual, even Geetika Sharma, who plays Aman’s daughter Loveleen with enthusiasm for her new role model, and later, with dread.
Heaven on Earth regards patriarchy with a cold, clear gaze and asserts the salvation for women—and perhaps men—through belief in feminine power. This is a tough, but ultimately uplifting film. l