May issue 2009
Hell on Earth
Although Videsh — Heaven on Earth has won both writer-director Deepa Mehta and lead heroine Priety Zinta, awards internationally, critics are discontented with Mehta’s introduction of the sheeshnaag myth (adapted from Girish Karnad’s play Naag Mandala) — a cobra who assumes human shape — into the storyline. For them, it “robs the movie of its realism,” and sidetracks from the main story of Chaand (Priety Zinta), a victim of domestic abuse. Despite that, the movie on the whole is far more realistic than many others on the issue, because it explores the social facilitation of domestic violence. What is shocking is not Chaand (Zinta) being beaten up by her husband, Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj), but the family’s response to it. In one of the scenes, Chaand’s mother-in-law (Balinder Johar) turns on her just because the chapatti is not perfectly circular in shape; Chaand’s instant reaction is to push her mother-in-law away from herself — repulsed by her touch and already a victim of her husband’s beating — causing her to fall. Rocky kicks Chaand in the stomach as she lies on the floor. The father-in-law (Rajinder Singh Cheema) simply walks up to Rocky and tells him that it’s “enough.” Her nephew (Orville Maciel) escorts Chaand to her room, and the minute he sets her down on the bed, pushes her, causing her to fall face-down. There are several other instances throughout the film when the family is aware of Chaand being beaten up, yet they turn deaf and dumb to the screams of agony, as if it is a perfectly normal situation.
And it is the women who act as the facilitators of violence with their unquestioning acceptance of it as a part of life — themselves, suggestively, victims of a similar fate at one time. The first time Chaand is slapped by her husband, her sister-in-law Aman (Ramanjit Kapur), on seeing the bruise on her face, tells her, “Don’t take it to heart. He’s just short-tempered.” The mother-in-law, in whose presence she is slapped, simply says “Cry it out, this happens.”
At home, there is always the inevitable threat of saying something wrong or doing something wrong, which either leads to verbal slander or physical abuse. The children, growing up in such an environment, act upon these values. The nephew, as is evident through his aggression and resentment towards the family, already has the makings of the abusive male, nurtured by his home environment. The niece (Geetika Sharma) evidently suffers from an inferiority complex, partly due to her parents’ status in the household — the father is unemployed and the mother lives under her own parents’ roof — and partly to the acute awareness of the woman’s position in the family: the men are waited upon at mealtimes and while they eat, one woman cooks and the other serves.
Videsh — Heaven on Earth does not make bold statements nor offers solutions. It merely illustrates and points at the causes and attitudes that go into creating such situations. And that is what makes this movie so different. Priety Zinta delivers an outstanding performance and all the other characters are equally convincing. Although there is a lack of character development and motives, the movie’s aim is altogether different and so it does not suffer due to the lack of it. However, to be able to understand the movie at all, one either needs to be fluent in Punjabi or get a copy with good subtitles.
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.