Earth peers into India’s past

By Micheal Leung

No, you won’t find any lesbians here.

That’s just the way it is with Earth, Deepa Mehta’s second film in her nominally-tied trilogy.

Mehta’s first film in the set, Fire, caused much controversy in India and abroad because of its radical sexual orientation themes. During screenings in India, rioters crashed the now-banned film, breaking glass and burning posters as they went. It wasn’t so much because the film contained lesbian content, but more because it assailed sensitive cultural space. Mehta describes the film as humanist above feminist, and provocative above offensive.

Keeping that in mind, Earth takes a left turn. Set in Lahore of August, 1947, the film depicts pre-partition India through the eyes of Lenny, an eight-year-old Parsee girl. Unfortunately, the film comes across as flat from Lenny’s viewpoint. While some scenes and storylines are compelling, the film as a whole does not evoke the tragedy and betrayal it portends.

For those not versed in recent Indian history or perhaps more familiar with the current nuclear status of Pakistan and India, things have not always been this way.

On August 15, 1947, India was released from British control into ethnic chaos. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who had lived together peacefully for centuries, were consequently consumed by violence against one another. "Partition" refers to the British-imposed religious borders before they retreated from the territory. The result is the two states we see today: India and Pakistan.

Earth focuses on Lenny (Maia Sethna) and her small group of adult friends. Lenny’s idyllic world decays into a quagmire of loss, mirroring the outside anarchy. Nandita Das plays Lenny’s nanny Shanta, an attractive Hindu woman whose beauty attracts many male suitors. The males provide a sample of the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of Lahore. Among them are two Muslims, Ice Candy Man (Aamhir Khan) and Hasan (Rahul Khanna). The film follows these characters and their group of friends as the partition, and resulting ethnic violence, becomes imminent. How will each character deal with the deepening religious chasms?

As the violence unfolds, certain elements of the film are successful in their portrayal where others fail to convey the true tragedy. As a member of the Parsee minority, Lenny and her family are spared from the violence. Lenny’s loss of innocence is achieved, as she imitates the events surrounding her.

The film is based on Cracking India by Bapsi Sidwha. Sidwha describes the book as "semi-autobiographical," with Lenny representing herself during those times. Thus, Sethna’s acting coupled with the film’s presentation of Lenny is very realistic and believable. The film is also successful in portraying 1947 Lahore, despite the fact it was shot in New Delhi because of logistics.

The imagery and cinematography are well done–high-contrast lighting further emphasizes religious divides.

The film fails, however, to convey the true tragedy of ethnic murder. An estimated 1 million people died as a direct result of the mass movements of people from one country to the other. Earth depicts senseless murder and bloodshed, but it is presented in such a fashion that it seems distanced. As friends surrounding Lenny and Shanta shed their religion for survival, the audience is spared the true tragedy by the method Mehta chooses to depict these atrocities. It is not so much a fault of the actors as it is the storyline and script.

If Mehta wanted an unforgettable film, the motives of the friends would be further investigated. For example, Shanta falls in love with Hasan, despite their religious disparity. Their romance in the face of their polar religions is not explored; their imminent separation strikes only superficially. Also, the depiction of the Ice Candy Man, who endures one of the greatest loss in the film has his climatic revenge glossed over; one never feels the seething hate needed to motivate him to betray his friends.

Mehta is successful in her portrayal of the period. However, the tragic character is not achieved and the film is incomplete because of that.

Earth runs until Oct. 28 at the Plaza Theatre.

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