Potently integrating a family saga with the tragic 2002 riots in Ahmedabad, India, Rahul Dholakia’s searing “Heaven & Hell on Earth” dramatizes one family’s quest for a missing son. Expatriate helmer Dholakia (comedy “Kehtaa hai dil baar baar”) sustains a wide range of moods while eliciting one of the most textured perfs of Naseeruddin Shah’s distinguished career. Largely English-language, intimate epic is sure to spark heated debate in India (where release is still not set) as well as in the non-resident Indian community, and pic’s even-handed approach and emotional grip will draw strong fest and commercial interest.
As members of the small but well-tolerated Parsi community — whose roots are in ancient Persia — cinema projectionist Cyrus (Shah) and wife Shernaz (Sarika, returning to the screen after a 16-year absence) live happily in their humble Ahmedabad home with their two lively kids. Son Parzan (Parzan Dastur) is mad about cricket, and loves to escape to his imaginary world of candy and chocolate buildings he dubs “Parzania.” Younger sis Dilshad (Pearl Barsiwalla) completes a circle of genuine familial affection.
Alan (Corin Nemec), the American friend of a family acquaintance, arrives from Los Angeles to complete his graduate thesis on Mahatma Gandhi. Cyrus gets to know the foul-mouthed and scruffy Alan, whose family history of violence led him to drug addiction and an interest in Gandhi.
With Yank screenwriter David N. Donihue, Dholakia leisurely introduces these characters in pic’s first third, while somewhat intrusively cutting away to glimpses of Hindu and Muslim conflict on the city’s streets. Nevertheless, when TV reports reveal the torching of a train carrying hundreds of Hindu passengers, there’s little hint of the rage about to explode in Ahmedabad.
Dholakia and vet action director Sham Kaushal create a stunning 20-minute sequence of frenzied rioting, torching and mass destruction as a group of Hindu radicals goes on a bloodthirsty rampage that targets anyone who isn’t of their faith.
This includes Parsis such as the members of Cyrus’ family, who find themselves in the midst of the conflagration. Parzan gets separated from the others, and, as the ashes cool and the full measure of the human carnage is measured by the camera, Cyrus’ relentless search for Parzan begins to define pic as a fine humanist document.
Both Shah and Sarika have scenes that bring out their best acting instincts; Shah’s slow-burn characterization is mastery in action, and Sarika’s final plea before a human rights commission is a striking look at a mother’s pain. Nemec hams it up from time to time, particularly after the riot sequence, while little Dastur leaves a charming impression.
Synch-sound work, somewhat unusual in Indian cinema, is first-rate, and overall production package is extremely sharp. Master musician Zakir Hussain contributes an exceptional score, incorporating Eastern and Western motifs.