‘At the stroke of midnight, while the world sleeps. India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.’
So said India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru approaching midnight on August 14th, 1947. That paragraph was part of Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech. India’s Independence, was created by the English quitting India after 250 years and at the same time. the country of Pakistan was created. This breaking up of India was called The Partition, and is the backdrop of Deepa Mehta‘s first film of her Elemental Trilogy. This one is called Earth, and the other two were called Fire, and Water (which I’ve already reviewed).
It is 1947 and we are set up in Lahore. At the time of start of the film, Lahore was a city in India. Partition was announced two days before Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech, and with the announcement, Lahore became the capital of Pakistan. Eleven million people were displaced. Hindus, a minority living in Pakistan, wanted to go back to India and be among the majority. Muslims living India wanted to head back to the newly created Pakistan.
The migration of 11 million did not go smoothly. Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, all of whom found a way to live together before Partition, now found that no one could be trusted. Lifelong friends now wanted to slaughter each other. More than 1 million people were killed in the communal violence.
In Mehta’s Earth, the story begins with a small microcosm of people. The story unfolds through the eyes of a handicapped eight year old girl called Lenny-baby. She was under the care of her ayah or baby-sitter called Shanta (Nandita Das). Shanta was employed by an upper middle class Parsee family. Parsees were a distinct minority religion in India and as such they practiced relative neutrality – meaning they didn’t side with the Hindus, the Sikhs, or the Muslims.
Shanta was a beautiful single girl who didn’t lack for admirers. Among the admirers were a Sikh, a Muslim, and a Hindu boy. This group met regularly and were all friends. Only the Partition was causing cracks in their personal friendship foundations. Not only could we see it, but for those involved it was evident as well. Just as it was across the city of Lahore, and the rest of the country.
Director Mehta kept her focus local. In fact, her small microcosm of friends and family were simply symbols of what was happening in hundreds of thousands homes, involving millions. Does the fact that what we watched was indeed heartbreaking, carry an even greater impact? Yes, and what we saw was simply the breaking down of humanity that was going on not just in Lahore, but across an entire sub-continent.
When an inter-city train finally arrived more than 12 hours late, it carried not joyous travelers happily arriving, but instead it was carriage after carriage of dead Muslims, the men killed, and the women hacked to death. But the carnage wasn’t limited to the trains. When fires broke out from explosions, sometime the firemen used the fire trucks to pump petrol onto the burning homes. But back to our lead characters. Shanta eventually agrees to marry Hassan, the masseur , played by Rahul Khanna (above and below).
But this disappoints Dil Navaz played by Aamir Khan (pictured above with Nandita Das as they fly a kite). The consequences are tragic; especially so when you see the part that the guileless and innocent child Lenny plays in it.
For those of you that have only read about this in history books, or seen it in other films, you might find it shocking and heartbreaking. Director Mehta has kept most of the extreme violence off the screen, and she has not hired any actors to portray the historical figures like Nehru, Jinnah, Mountbatten, or Gandhi. The perspective is purely local, and for this reason it is extremely touching and involving.
Of course, this is a bit of a contradiction. Because the scope was local we don’t realize the numbers involved, and we don’t have a sense of how the countries of Pakistan and India were impacted on a national perspective. But because it was local, the horrible events as they played out were all the more touching.
Director Mehta, who as reported in my review of Water, is no stranger to controversy. In fact, this film, Earth, was banned in Pakistan for political reason. In India, the film Censor Board demanded six cuts be made including some in the sex scene between Shanta and the masseur.
The film has an unusual palette to it, not the standardized brilliant Technicolor. The music is beautiful, and seemingly is underdone meaning that it serves as background rather than as a tool to indicate emotional reactions. Mehta worked with A.R. Rahman as composer for the music in this film. Since 1998 when this film was released, Rahman has gone on to international fame for his music in such films as Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Lagaan, and Lord of War.
While the languages spoken will include Urdu, Punjabi, Parsee, and Hindi, with the Parsee family speaking English, as do all of the characters at least some of the time. There’s even a dinner party where a British character manages to antagonize a Sikh character. Which means, even though the British Raj was ending, and the Independence of India was forthcoming, this created difficulties for everyone , not just the Muslims, the Hindus, and the Sikhs.
The subtitles were done quite well, and do not intrude on the visuals. Overall, Mehta has proven that she can tell a story well, and she can reach into your heart and make you react. One might think that this was too big of a story to be concentrated among so few characters, but I think that the impact is all the greater just because it was done this way. Three point seven-five is the rating.
I will have Mehta’s film Fire for review later this month. There is a trailer for the film on the IMDB. The link is below: