Interview with Deepa Mehta: We ask the director about Brampton, spousal abuse and her new film, Heaven on Earth
Heaven on Earth tells the story of a young woman, Chand, who leaves her home in India to be married to a man she doesn’t know, Rocky, in Toronto. She is introduced to her new family members at Pearson airport, and they seem welcoming—but as soon as they return to their suburban home in Brampton, presumed marital bliss turns into a nightmare fraught with fear, isolation and helplessness. For many living in Toronto’s downtown core, Brampton is a pocket of the GTA that is often looked at from the rearview mirror of a zooming car. In Heaven on Earth, though, we witness a terrifying portrayal of a turbulent existence masked by cookie-cutter homes and green lawns.
Director Deepa Mehta has created a powerful film that forces us to see how isolating the experience of immigration can be. Always wanting to be politically correct, some Canadian audiences might be wondering what impact this film will have on Punjabi families. When asked, though, Mehta flipped the question back to us: “If this were a film about a white woman being abused, would we wonder how white people would react?” Probably not, but with very few references available, a viewer may assume that all houses in Brampton are overflowing with extended families and assume that arranged marriage is an outdated practice that only ever ends in disaster. Mehta’s response: “All marriage is a gamble.”
True enough. Mehta did not go out of her way to make a film about an arranged marriage gone wrong in Brampton, but wanted to tackle domestic abuse and simply used the GTA suburb as a platform for a universal story. We asked the director, never one to shy away from tough subject matter, what her objective was in making Heaven on Earth. She let us know that she doesn’t sit around at night trying to concoct a message for an audience; rather, she researches a story that she finds interesting and a subject matter that she wants to learn more about: “Emotionally I understand it [abuse], but intellectually I can’t understand how women can stay in these types of relationships. I don’t understand why they just don’t walk out.” Making this film allowed her a better understanding of the boxed-in realities of domestic abuse.
Perhaps the most cringe-worthy scene in this film is when the newly married couple head to frigid Niagara Falls for a “honeymoon.” Nestled in the tackiest strip-joint motel, their first night is interrupted when Rocky’s mother knocks on the door and spouts that she has had a nightmare about losing her son. To rectify the situation, Rocky invites her to share a bed with Chand; when this is met with polite protest, Chand receives a harsh hit across the face. Appalled that any woman could sit back and allow her son to harm his new wife, we ask Mehta why she created such a malicious character to play the mother. “She is a victim also—everyone in the family is a victim. I think that what motivates her, or when I was developing her character, I was thinking that she’s a victim because she lives in fear. She lives in fear of losing her son, and what does that mean? It means losing the main breadwinner of the family.”
Heaven on Earth is not an easy film to watch, but, as Mehta concludes, “Every community has its underbelly, and you have to deal with it. You can decide to have collective amnesia about it or you can try to understand.” —Jen McNeely