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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Canadian Film Review: Heaven on Earth (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Deepa Mehta
Starring: Preity Zinta, Vansh Bhardwaj

Deepa Mehta’s social conscience has always played a fairly sizeable role in her films, most of which comment on larger socio-political situations through smaller, personal stories. Heaven on Earth is no different, exploring the issue of domestic violence and tying it to the larger context of immigration and how complicated East-West relations can contribute to an already volatile situation. Mixing realism with fantasy, Mehta tells an engrossing story of despair and hope.

The film centres of Chand (Preity Zinta in an earnest and very open performance), sent from India to Canada to marry Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj), a seemingly shy and gentle man who bears the burden of supporting his family, which includes his parents and his sister, her husband and their two children. Chand’s image of Rocky begins to distort almost immediately after they’re married as he begins to physically abuse her on their honeymoon. Chand is helpless against him, not only because she lacks the physical strength to fight back but because her position within society leaves her entirely isolated. Far from home, without money of her own, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, living with people who have little sympathy for her and, in fact, contribute a great deal to the escalation of violence by setting Rocky off, there seems to be little hope for her survival.

Rocky arranges for her to work at a factory alongside his sister, her paycheque being directly deposited into his account so that she never has access to it. At the factory she becomes friends with a co-worker, an immigrant from Jamaica who has had her own experiences with abuse. She wants to help Chand, offering her money so that she can walk away from the situation, but Chand is too scared to go off on her own. Chand does, however, latch on to the story her friend tells her about a love potion that will cause a man to fall in love with a woman he treats with hate. Chand decides to try this solution and here the film takes a magic realist turn, weaving elements of mythology into the story.

The film is, obviously, deeply critical of the ease with which women can be stripped of any power they might have, making it easy to trap them in dangerous situations and power dynamics where they are preordained to come out the loser. It is also critical of the way that immigrants, particularly non-white immigrants, are at once incorporated into and kept at a distance from society. As far as Rocky and his family are concerned, Chand’s arrival is a matter of economics: she’s one more person who can contribute to the household expenses and to the expense of bringing Rocky’s brother to Canada. Their treatment of her is unfair, but at the same time it’s understandable how they would come to see another human being in this purely economic way because of their own tenuous place in society. Rocky’s brother-in-law is unable to find work, Chand is forced to work in a factory despite having a degree – all have come to Canada hoping to find an opportunity to better their lives and have been disappointed by the reality that despite their intelligence and skill, they’re starting over from scratch in a place that is traditionally hostile to the upward mobility of foreign-born residents. The characters deal with society’s disdain for them by turning it around on Chand, punishing her for the injustices that have been inflicted on them by others. This isn't simply the story of one disenfranchised woman, but of an entire segment of the population disenfranchised by a casual and accepted form a racism. If you came from, for example, England with a degree, chances are that you wouldn't have to settle for work in a factory at $8 an hour.

Mehta takes the time to carefully explore the issue of domestic violence from a multitude of angles. It isn’t simply a personal issue between Chand and Rocky, it’s also a means for Rocky’s mother to exert power through her son, and it’s something that deeply affects Rocky’s niece and nephew as it defines for them patterns and rigid gender roles that they will find difficult to break. It’s a very thoughtful film in that respect and takes its subject matter very seriously. The only real criticism I have is that the film runs out of steam towards the end, really wasting the momentum it had built up to that point. It is, however, a beautifully constructed film that easily blends realism with fantasy and makes its point loud and clear.

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