Heaven on Earth Commentary

Domestic violence is a factor in many families and the frequent subject of both fiction and documentary. Deepa Mehta’s treatment of spousal abuse in the Sikh community provides a skillfully balanced portrait of two people caught in a situation not of their own making, but which turns each of their lives into a nightmare. Heaven on Earth (2008) focuses on the feelings and experiences of Chand (Preity Zinta) and Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj) as they try to cope with an arranged marriage in Canada.

Chand is the pretty and accomplished daughter of an indulgent family in India. She has never known want or fear. She is intelligent, well read and funny. Her loving mother (Gick Grewal) nourishes her mind and spirit with both a western education and the legends and myths of her native land. Rocky Dhillon is an immigrant who makes a marginal wage driving taxi. He supports his elderly parents, and lives in a crowded apartment with his brother, sister-in-law and their two children. His brother Baldev (Gourrev Sihan) is unemployed and his sister-in-law Aman (Ramanjit Kaur) works in a laundry. The family is so poor that they rent their apartment out to other immigrants during the day. Rocky’s parents wander the malls while strangers sleep in their bed. Rocky feels trapped and angry. The arranged marriage with Chand means nothing more to him than a $20,000 dowry. After that, the new wife will just be another mouth to feed while he continues to pay the bills and save enough money to bring his other brothers to Canada. As soon as Chand arrives, Rocky is faced with yet another demand: her brother also wants to be brought to Canada. Rocky can see no way out of this crushing load of family obligation: he has literally become a slave to everyone else’s dreams. Soon after Rocky and Chand are married, he begins to beat her.

The story of what happens to this couple is universal enough to resonate with any audience and specific enough to give insights into a particular community. What is interesting about this film is that writer-director Mehta chooses to explore the issue of spousal abuse from its inception, giving the audience the same point of view as the battered wife. The audience is as shocked and confused as Chand by the sudden eruptions of anger and violence that are never predictable and never explained. The first slap across the face is so unexpected that we ask ourselves, as Chand does, “Where did that come from?” We are left to puzzle out an answer, along with Chand, from the occasional remarks that Rocky makes about everyone wanting something from him. What saves the Rocky character from being a complete ogre is his own despair and self-loathing. He has contained his resentment and frustration to such an extent that he has walled himself off emotionally from his entire family. He feels increasingly powerless and out of control.

Mehta reserves her deepest criticism for Rocky’s mother, Maji (Balinder Johal), a completely self-absorbed woman who rules the family with an unsentimental iron fist. She seems to dislike everyone except for her beloved son, Rocky, whom she nevertheless manipulates unmercifully. Maji looks dispassionately at Chand’s bruised face and tells her to get used to it, that marriage is like that. Is there a history of male violence in this family, or just a history of violence? The unemployed brother seems to be completely under the thumb of his wife. He playfully says to her one day that maybe he should beat her, too. She replies scornfully that he can do that when he gets a job. Their father, Papaji (Rajinder Singh Cheema) seems to be an unassertive, kindly man who tells Rocky on one occasion to stop beating Chand and the whole family to be quiet so that he can conduct his prayers. Yet, the family, kindly grandfather included, all sit blandly watching television while the beatings occurs around them. There are clearly values at work in this particular family that accept violence and the abuse of power and these values have just as clearly made their way through several generations. Baldev’s young son, Kabir (Orville Maciel) is alternately kind and cruel. His sister, Loveleen (Geetika Sharma), an intelligent and vivacious little girl, is learning her own lessons about submission and dominance by observing the fate of her aunt.

Victims of domestic violence often cope with their pain through dissociation. Chand begins to imagine herself in the third person, the heroine of the folktales that her mother told her in India. The Chand of her imagination is strong, active, desired, and loved. Mehta films these sequences in black and white in order to magnify their distance from the reality of Chand’s transplanted life in Toronto. But, as Chand tries desperately to make her marriage work, Mehta starts to interpolate myth into Chand’s real life. The serpent of her mother’s stories becomes a double for Chand’s actual husband. It comes to her disguised as a kind and loving Rocky when she is sad and lonely; it sympathizes with her and tells her that it would never hurt her.  Desperate for any display of affection, Chand finds herself attracted to this illusion and unable to distinguish between the real and the imagined Rocky. As her life with the Dhillons becomes intolerable, her snake lover gives her the advice that will set her free. Illusion and reality collapse into one as Chand proves her strength and virtue by drawing a real cobra out of a hole in the ground before the astonished eyes of the whole family. She has effectively broken their power over her and restored her belief in herself. Chand retrieves her passport along with enough of her own money to go home to India and quietly walks out the door.

This remarkable film received eleven nominations at film festivals around the world. It won an award for best actress in 2008 from the Chicago International Film Festival and an award for best screenplay at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Evelyn Ellerman