VIFF Review: Heaven on Earth
Canadian director Deepa Mehta is quite the talent. People either know her for her lighthearted comedic approaches to marriage, family, relationships and love like Bollywood/Hollywood and The Republic of Love while others will be more familiar with her Elements Trilogy of which Water is head and shoulders above the rest.
Going into Mehta’s new film Heaven and Earth, which premiered at TIFF earlier this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect: dramatic or comedic? As it begins, there’s a sense that this is going to be a dramatic tale of true love. It starts in India with a wedding celebration. Chand is a beautiful young woman who has been married off to a man living in Canada. A short time later, we see Chand arriving at the airport, meeting her husband Rocky for the first time and all seems to be going well (he’s “shy as a mouse”). Could it be that we’re going to see a tale of true love unfolding? Unfortunately, that is not the case and almost immediately it’s clear that Rocky is not as soft hearted and kind as he appears and the events that unfold are anything but heaven on earth.
Though some of Mehta’s other films have involved a light touch of fantasy, Heaven and Earth goes further into that dreamworld than any of Mehta’s other films. Still present are the themes we’ve come to expect from the writer/director but mixed in among them is a survival mechanism unlike any I’ve seen before in her films. To escape her brutal reality, Chand retreats into the stories of her childhood and from one of those stories comes a new “reality” that helps her cope and, eventually, escape.
Visually, Mehta’s new films isn’t as breathtaking as Water but there’s a gritty feel to life in Canada in comparison to Chand’s life in India. The few scenes in India are bright, colourful and cheery; there’s a feeling of being alive even though the surroundings look anything but “rich.” In contrast, the Canadian scenes are dark, gritty and overbearing and there’s a sense of being imprisoned.
Though this is clearly Chand’s film and the breathtaking Preity Zinta carries it beautifully, there’s an excellent cast of supporting players which add a great authenticity and reality to the story. Balinder Johal is wonderful as the protective mother unwilling to accept the fact that her son is married. Johal plays Maji as the clear leader of the clan, a woman whose path you don’t want to cross. Rajinder Singh Cheema plays Papaji with depth even though he’s not given a lot of screen time to develop. He’s a man who seems thrust into the expected “male” role when in fact, he appears kind and understanding. The real gem is first time actor Vansh Bhardwaj who plays Rocky (both the good and the bad). His performance requires a complete shift in personality from scene to scene and he pulls it off beautifully.
Though Mehta has never made “big” films, this feels much more intimate than her previous works. Perhaps it’s the small scale of the story or the location but there’s something very personal about this story of survival. The fantasy aspect was an unexpected surprise and one which was used with care and rather than remove Chand’s story from the real world, it works to bring home the realities of life for the women who face these types of abusive relationships.
I liked Heaven and Earth from the moment the lights came up but after a few days of milling, it’s quickly become one of those films that simply won’t leave my mind and between the universal appeal and the message of survival which comes across beautifully, this is one that deserves to find an appreciative audience.