Chipping away at the Indian institution of arranged marriage one feature at a time, Deepa Mehta brings her latest taboo-challenging critique home to Canada with “Heaven on Earth,” in which a beauty leaves Punjab for better opportunities abroad, only to end up shackled to an abusive husband and his unsympathetic family. Working from the testimony of true survivors, Mehta rejects notions of domestic discretion to unveil patterns of subservience and shame. But don’t expect fans keen on her exotic overseas portraits to feel the same way about a candid First World expose, suggesting limited prospects for the primarily Punjabi-language pic.
“Heaven on Earth” opens with the vibrant imagery auds have come to expect from Mehta and longtime d.p. Giles Nuttgens, as friends and relatives throw a colorful bridal shower for Chand (Bollywood star Preity Zinta), who travels from India to Toronto to meet husband-to-be Rocky (newcomer Vansh Bhardwaj). For Chand, this new world feels grim and disorienting, with Nuttgens’ handheld camerawork reflecting her mental state.
Almost instantly, warning signs arise that the marriage is not an equitable one. Her new mother-in-law (Balinder Johal) senses competition for her son’s affections, wedging herself between them. When Chand objects, Rocky slaps her, triggering a cycle of abuse that escalates as the story progresses.
Cut off from her family and trapped within a system of willing accomplices, Chand becomes a different person in the States — an opportunity for the beautiful Zinta, who appears in nearly every scene, to undertake a stunning psychological transformation. Covered in bruises, she retreats into her inner world, relying increasingly on fairy tales and her imagination to make the treatment bearable.
At work, her sole friend — an irrepressible Jamaican woman played by Yanna McIntosh — gives Chand a magic root rumored to turn any man’s heart. But the love potion has supernatural side effects, conjuring a shape-shifting cobra that assumes her husband’s form, an idea Mehta drew from the Indian play “Naga Mandala,” and one that feels at odds with this claustrophobic modern world.
Things get confusing to follow as Chand falls under the snake’s spell, unable to distinguish between her quick-to-anger husband and the attentive lookalike that slithered in through the open window. (Bhardwaj, for his part, is frustratingly hard to read in either capacity.)
At home, the women take Rocky’s side in any conflict — a damning illustration of how those whose spirits have already been broken perpetuate the patriarchal system. With each setback, Chand escapes into a world of fantasy (echoed by lapses into black-and-white), turning these old-world fairy tales to her advantage in a harrowing personal trial that spells either certain death or a form of self-confident rebirth.