Heaven on Earth journeys into arranged marriage

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Deepa Mehta's body of work has been ambitious and fraught with controversy, as seen in the right-wing Indian riots that met the Fire segment of her Elements Trilogy, and in threats that prompted the production of Water to relocate to Sri Lanka after months of work in Varanasi. So you'd think it would be a cinch to make a small-scale domestic drama in suburbs near Toronto, where she has lived most of her adult life. Not so.

"All of my movies are difficult," the black-clad writer-director confided in a late-September meeting during the Vancouver International Film Festival, just as the film in question was getting its local debut. "The worst part was that it was so bloody cold."

Heaven on Earth, which begins its commercial run here on Friday (October 31), features Bollywood star Preity Zinta (Heroes)  as Chand, a village girl who arrives in wintry Brampton, Ontario, with high hopes only to see her initially promising arranged marriage become a prison of spiritual and physical deprivation. This is a common-enough situation, unfortunately, but the veteran filmmaker was determined to avoid problem-of-the-week TVisms. Mehta's cinema is about much more than the genre formats that identify them. And Heaven goes past its social-issues format to explore what marriage itself is made of.

The world Mehta chose for this particular heroine is not especially bleak, and you keep thinking that her new husband wouldn't be bad with enough therapy and anger-management classes. Part of this sympathy came through the casting of gentle-faced Vansh Bhardwaj as the husband, Rocky.

"This was his first movie, believe it or not," she said. "The whole cast was so good, and that's what makes you care, I think. You have to believe that Chand would will herself into seeing a better version of her new husband than actually exists. One of the key moments is when she asks the Good Rocky, or whatever you want to call him, 'Who are you?' and he says, 'I am all that you desire.' She wants a caring, loving person who can also make her laugh-what we all look for.

"I mean, I talk to young Canadians and they are all into this computer dating now, and that, to me, leads to a kind of arranged marriage, except that we have this agency out there in the place of matchmakers we have in every culture, in some sense. Now you have this thing where you type in what you are looking for. Previously, it was our parents who did that, determining what was a good family to come from and all that. They knew you, and they had an idea-right or wrong-of who would be appropriate for you. Now it's what movies you like and long walks on the beach, but it's still a list of requirements."

The vivacious filmmaker wonders if modern autonomy is leading to a kind of soulless autopilot.

"Everyone is becoming so disenfranchised. Kids walk down the street with their iPods, and it seems like it's about shutting off one sense after the other, all in the name of some kind of control over our environment. So this isn't about arranged marriage, per se, but about whatever arranges our lives, shutting off the flow of imagination, not giving you room to breathe and dream-everything we need to make us whole, as people."

Heaven's imaginary realm includes snake-laden mythology and trials by ordeal. On the more literal side, Mehta takes the opportunity to examine some less pleasant aspects of her Punjabi background, particularly in an immigrant form that finds women expected to keep the flame of religion and homeland alive while men smoke, drink, and sport flashy leather jackets. The young males on view here resemble little princes, handed privileges the women must sweat to maintain. (There are some darkly funny bits about flourishing prejudices against other ethnic groups in Canada.)

"The men are given these privileges back home, of course. It is a patriarchal society. And they carry that forward, into other societies, and often without the social responsibilities they would have had at home. The little girl here, the sister-in-law, is traumatized, and you sense that she will also end up in an abusive relationship. And her young brother will grow up to perpetrate this, as well, but he will feel bad about it, like Rocky."

The filmmaker doesn't pretend to know the way off this dark merry-go-round, except as a one-by-one experience.

"The problem is that there are no consequences. The mother-in-law says, 'Why are you crying? This is married life. It's no big deal.' But this movie is not about the white social worker coming in and solving things, or even calling 911. It is about people coping with their own problems and escaping their pockets of ignorance. But, like Chand, they are capable of so much more, and you go though the journey with her."

It's just too bad for Deepa Mehta that the journey didn't take her to the Bahamas.

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