Preity Zinta opens the door on domestic abuse.
HEAVEN ON EARTH written and directed by Deepa Mehta, with Preity Zinta, Vansh Bhardwaj, Balinder Johal and Yanna McIntosh. A Mongrel release. 106 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (October 24). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
With Heaven on Earth, Oscar-nominated director Deepa Mehta (Water) and her intense female gaze come back to Canada.
Preity Zinta plays Chand, who arrives in Brampton from India for an arranged marriage. The opening sequences contrasting the vibrant colours of Chand's homeland with the soul-crushing greyness of the 401 capture the new arrival's impending shock.
Mehta plays with those expectations when Chand experiences her first miraculous snowfall and pays a trip to majestic Niagara Falls. We're thinking this may be a feel-good story after all.
But then reality strikes when her bully of a new husband, Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj), beset by financial stress and a mother who won't let go (Balinder Johal in way scary mode), starts slapping her around. As his rage erupts, the family sits by passively in scenes guaranteed to disturb.
This isn't a new story, from either a political or artistic perspective. It's the cultural details that set the film apart: the extended family crammed into a small home, the need to rent out the house during the day, the niece and nephew learning all the wrong things from the abuse they witness.
Mehta adds elements of magic realism to the narrative when Chand's hotel laundry co-worker Rosa (played effectively by Yanna McIntosh) suggests a love potion in the form of a root guaranteed to turn Rocky around. The strategy creates some powerful effects - the mythical snake emerging in the front yard, for example - but muddies the story.
When Rocky does appear transformed into a dream lover, we're not sure whether this is magic realism or a sign that Chand is slowly going out of her mind.
But it's a small complaint about a film that has real power.
Mehta was castigated in India for her clear-eyed trilogy set there, and she won't be making new friends among traditionalist South Asians here in T.O. either.