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EARTH(director/writer: Deepa Mehta; screenwriter: adapted from Bapsi Sidhwa’s semi-autobiographical novel “Cracking India”; cinematographer: Giles Nuttgens; editor: Barry Farrell; cast: Nandita Das (Shanta ), Aamir Khan (Dil Navaz), Rahul Khanna (Hasan), Maia Sethna (Lenny-Baby Sethna), Kitu Gidwani (Bunty Sethna), Kulbushan Kharbanda (Imam Din), Gulshan Grover (Singh), Arif Zakari (Rustom Sethna), Pavan Malhotra (Butcher), Raghubir Yadav (Hariya/ Himmat Ali); Runtime: 115; Zeitgeist Films; 1998-India/Can.)
“There was a certain power that could not be denied.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

For Ms. Deepa Mehta — Fire is the first film of her trilogy on the elements, this her second, and Water, to be filmed later, will be her third. She is the India-born native, now living in Canada, who is the director of this sweeping panoramic film about the partition of India in 1947, which resulted in the greatest migration of people ever — of 12 million. There was also the slaughter of one million on all sides.

The partition was decided unilaterally by the British. India and its majority Hindu population and Pakistan and its majority Muslim population, becoming separate countries. That event as it unfolded was seen through the naive eyes of a crippled (polio-afflicted) 8-year-old girl, Lenny-Baby (Maia), living in Lahore, who represents the book’s author, Bapsi Sidhwa, as a child.

Lenny-Baby hears the arguments about the partition in her house over dinner, as an arrogant British official gets into a fight over how India will miss the British who kept all the different religions from killing each other. He argues with a fanatical Sikh (a religion which combines tenets of both Hinduism and Islam).

The ominous signs of the near-future come up again when Lenny-Baby is taken to the park (Queens Gardens) by her nanny, the kindhearted and beautiful Shanta (Nandita Das), where a multireligious group of Shanta’s friends meet daily to discuss the current issues. The group of friends include Hasan the Muslim masseur (Khanna), Sher Singh the Sikh (Gulshan Grover), Muslim Imam Din (Khalbushan Khalbanda), and Muslim Dil Nawaz (Khan), the Ice Candy Man. Their discussions about independence and British withdrawal from the region brings about a growing tension as Shanta, who is apolitical, wishes that they do not discuss their heated differences when she is present. Shanta has attracted all the men in her group but is being actively pursued by two handsome Muslim young men — Hasan, an inventor of a product made from fish oil that can grow hair on bald people and by Dil Navaz, who is a voice of reason in the Muslim community. Lenny-Baby tags along with Shanta whom she considers to be her best friend and is, at first, fascinated watching the rascal-like Dil try to win Shanta over and then becoming more concerned that she will lose her best friend to the earnest, soft-spoken Hasan, whom she sees Shanta falling in love with.

The film offers a powerful history lesson of how religion is used as an excuse to grab land and vent violence against another people in the name of nationalism, as each side got trapped in the war fever. Muslim was against Hindu-Sikh, with each side being guilty of massacring, kidnapping, and raping each other.

The hope of India remaining peaceful is viewed best through the eyes of an upper-class Parsee family, consisting of the gentle Bunty (Kitu) and her practical-minded husband, Rustom (Arif), and their precocious daughter Lenny-Baby. The family tries to bring all sides together. The Parsees are descended from Muslims, who fled Persia in the ninth century to migrate to India and have been an insignificant part of the India population ever since their arrival. They aim to remain neutral in all the conflicts, to emulate the Swiss during WW11. They believe they can be invisible, spreading sweetness to the land like sugar placed in the middle of a glass of milk. Besides, they realize it is the only way they can survive in this country.

The story picks up steam with independence acclaimed as a great day by the politicians but in a Lahore, Pakistan, train station (the Lahore scenes were filmed in New Delhi as the Pakistani government never got around to granting the filmmaker permission to shoot there), where Dil is anxiously waiting for his sister to arrive from just across the border in Gurdaspur, India, the train pulls in late and when Dil looks on board, the carnage is horrifying as everyone is brutally murdered. His sister’s breasts are removed and placed in gunnysacks filled with the severed breasts of other Muslim women. This experience shatters Dil’s faith in a peaceful solution and a hatred grows within him. There is one last hope, as he tells Shanta that his love for her is stronger than any hatred and only she can prevent him from joining the cause of inflicting a violent upheaval against his outnumbered neighbors by marrying him. But she chooses the more gentle Hasan, whom she plans to marry and live with in India, as he tells her that he will convert to Hinduism for her.

Lahore’s Hindu section is burnt to the ground and total violence becomes the rule of the day, after the train incident. The gardener (Yadav) in the Parsee household converts to being a Muslim rather than being persecuted. A 10-year-old sweeper’s daughter is married off to an old dwarf so that the Hindu family can convert to Christianity, as Lenny’s mother comments “Fear makes all of us to abandon reason.” There is danger for everyone in Lahore who isn’t a Muslim or isn’t active in the Muslim cause, even the neutrality of the Parsee’s home is compromised.

The problem with the film is threefold: One, is that all these tragic events are translated through the childish eyes of Lenny who cannot possibly grasp everything that is happening, she just doesn’t have the maturity to do that. Secondly, the tragic historical statistics speak for themselves and it is unnecessary to be hammered over the head by repeatedly seeing the events unfold through the eyes of an innocent child. The horror is already a given and doesn’t have to be reinforced by Lenny throwing a dish on the floor and then asking her mother, if a country could be broken into pieces like that. It was an unneeded artifice, that tended to spoil the flow of the film’s dramatics. The other problem with this otherwise splendid history lesson and tragic love story, is that all the movie’s metaphors are used to amplify the historical tale and not to see more than what has already been stated. The character’s lives were reduced in scope and they seemed to be milked for the benefit of making the story fit into the historical text.

Earth is based on a semiautobiographical novel by Bapsi Sidhwa, called “Cracking India.” It is stunningly photographed, using reds and purples to express the blood-curdling scenes of Lahore under siege and a glowing yellow is used for the warm household scenes and a brownish amber to catch the vast beauty of the countryside. It is noteworthy for exploring in detail the destruction of innocence and the arbitrary splitting up of the earth, and how everyone gets caught up in the emotional frenzy of hatred and how difficult it is to just do what is right. This is an on-going conflict that still threatens the earth today and with both Pakistan and India armed with atomic weapons, it only makes their religious conflict more perilous.

There was a certain power that could not be denied. Nandita Das as Shanta, is the heart of the picture. Her performance is breathtaking. She slowly finds love with Hasan, remains friendly with Dil Nawaz, and generously serves the Sethna family. Nandita is the human face we remember about the violence and the betrayal in Lahore. Aamir Khan as Dil Nawaz, who is a very popular actor in India, is the force behind the film. His masterful performance, changing from an endearing and helpful figure to one who embraces violence, was what put a human face of evil on this melodrama.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”