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Film Review

Heaven on Earth

Commingling of
Mythology and Reality

Saad Adnan Khan

Oscar nominated director Deepa Mehta's latest venture 'Heaven on earth' is a phantasmagoric tale of Diaspora, domestic violence and magic. She churns mythology with reality, making the former corporeal and the latter a bit spectral. Chand, the protagonist of the movie, a convivial Punjabi girl, played by Bollywood superstar Preity Zinta, leaves her hometown Ludhiana, Punjab, and immigrates to Canada to get married to Rocky, a modern Sikh, who is a complete stranger to Chand. As the story proceeds, Rocky being the sole bread earner of the family is revealed to be an abusive husband. Chand becomes a spittoon in which Rocky spits and vents his fury and frustration that appear as bruises on Chand's lovely visage.

(Top) Whether a pretty, cheerful bride or abused wife, Preity Zinta’s performance is impressive. (Bottom) Battered and bruised, but she must still face the world.

The movie to one extent seems like the replica of Jag Mundhra's 'Provoked', but this is when Deepa Mehta exalts the audience, by bringing in the magical paraphernalia of Girish Karnad's play 'Naag Mandala' in the plot. Chand carries the folk tale of shish naag (King cobra) told by her mother as her talisman, that she recites to herself in the form of beautiful Punjabi couplets. This liberates her from the physical wound her husband inflicts. Deepa Mehta intertwines the mystery and mantra of the mythology Naag Mandala (that tells a story of a king cobra falling in love with a married woman after taking a magic root) in her movie, thus balancing fantasy and reality in a commendable way, since the audiences do not fail to feel the ground beneath them. The king cobra remains a symbol of strength, positive force and desire that are integral parts in Chand's characterisation.

In the movie, Chand, desperate for conjugal love, puts the magical root (that makes the person who takes it fall madly in love with the one who has given it), given to her by her Jamaican friend Rosa, in Rocky's milk. The milk however turns blood red, that scares Chand into throwing the metamorphosed milk in a hole in the family yard. Little did she know that the hole was a snake pit, and a king cobra resided there, that drinks the milk and falls in love with Chand. The king cobra, being a form shifter, transforms into Rocky and enters Chand's life. Inevitably Chand gets perplexed by her capricious husband, who in one moment gestures out the most quixotic dialogue, and in the other attempts to break her rib cage. Chand remains oblivious to the surreal happening till the end when she gets accused of infidelity and has to prove her innocence by putting her hand inside the snake pit. However, the 'snake-Rocky', fore convinces Chand of her safety. To everyone's awe Chand pulls out a full fledged king cobra (the snake-Rocky) from the hole and wraps it around her neck. At that instant a halo magically appears behind Chand's head that makes her look like a mystical divine avatar.

Deepa Mehta's sheer genius could be expounded on the ways she has shot the movie, that accentuate the underlying themes. The scenes of Chand in Punjab are shot in 35 mm camera, while scenes in Canada are shot in 16 mm hand held camera. The use of hand held camera brings a subtle shakiness to the sequences that externalise the inner instability Chand feels in her newly unfolded hellish life. The quality of colour shifts too, that transfuses a faint grittiness to the scenes of Canada, that is in contrary to the vibrancy of the scenes of Punjab. Moreover some of the scenes are shot in black and white to uphold the isolation that the characters feel. Every time Chand whispers the soliloquies, the scenes take up a monochromatic hue that shows Chand's isolation from the surrounding ugliness, and also the enigma of her clairvoyant imagination that makes the reality look dull and gloomy. The technique is also used to highlight some individual scenes of Rocky, because he also feels isolated from the mainstream that he perversely wants to be a part of.

Deepa Mehta

Preity Zinta has won the Silver Hugo award for best actress at the Chicago International Film festival for her mesmerizing portrayal of Chand. She culminates her body language and native Punjabi dialogues to present us a volatile, yet seraphic (figuratively and literally) character who discovers herself back when she pulls out the snake. She finds her self-respect and dignity that was leeched out by her husband when she holds the snake and says 'Since coming to Canada I've only touched two males. One is my husband and the second is this cobra. If I am lying, let this snake bite me'. Zinta gives out a stunning performance at every aspect of her characterization. Whether it is to express the anticipation of a newly wed bride or the cringing woman pulling out a snake from a pit, she never digresses.

Deepa Mehta's movies usually fall in the off-beat category and consist of lacerating and indelible touches of reality. In 'Heaven on Earth', however she has merged fantasy with reality and juggled both the elements in an idiosyncratic manner. She has shown the starkness of brutal domestic violence, as well as the bewitchment of inexplicable magic that swaddles Chand's life, dually, bringing 'magic-realism' on screen. Deepa Mehta has won an award for best screenplay at the Dubai International film festival for the movie. Undoubtedly, 'Heaven on earth', with its to-vouch-for cast and director, truly turns to be an ineffable cinematic experience.


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