Political Film Society - Earth

PFS Film Review


When Britain contemplated granting independence to India, leaders of the future Pakistan encouraged Moslems to press for a separate country. When the partition occurred on August 15, 1947, with the collaboration of Britain and the Pakistani leaders and over the opposition of Mohandas Gandhi, Pakistan was carved out of India into Eastern and Western parts. Earth, directed by Deepa Mehta, tells us at the end of the film that ten million persons became refugees and one million died in the resulting ethnic cleansing, but these statistics do not include three later wars, an arms race that has led to nuclear proliferation, and occasional flare-ups over Kashmir that have brought the countries to the brink of war. But the real purpose of her film is to show what happened at a more personal level in the city of Lahore, Punjab, which fell into Pakistan hands. The film is based on the novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa about a crippled girl Lenny (played by Maia Sethna), a Parsee who was only eight at the time; her voice-overs begin and end the film, and it is through her eyes that we see the senseless tragedy. (Parsees escaped to India from Persia during the ninth century to escape Islamic persecution, cooperated with the British and all other ethnic groups, and prospered.) As the film begins, around the dinner table are seated British, Hindus, Moslems, Parsees, and Sikhs, who had been getting along for 250 years of colonial rule. But all that is now breaking down as independence and partition are imminent; some fire verbal brickbats about other groups during the conversation, and the affected interlocutors almost come to blows. At first, everyone featured in the film planned to stay, believing that the transition would not be difficult. On the night before independence, however, fire breaks out in Hindu homes, and Hindus and Sikhs soon decide to flee as soon as possible, paying a Moslem to provide safe conduct who, in the end, could not be relied upon. Most of the film focuses on a young Hindu named Ayah Shanta (played by Nandita Das), who is Lenny's nanny; she is courted by two Moslems. Hassan (played by Rahul Khanna) wins her affections; however, since mixed marriages are not tolerated, the two agree to escape to Amritsr, the Sikh capital within India. The other Moslem suitor Dil Navaz (played by Aamir Khan), however, arranges to kill Hassan and incites a mob to kidnap and execute Ayah Shanta. Lenny innocently betrays the whereabouts of her nanny, an indiscretion that haunts her for the rest of her life, just as the ethnic cleansing resulting from the partition has haunted a subcontinent ever since. In this déjà vu film, we are reminded that Britain, the United Nations, and the United States winked while massive human rights violations occurred, and that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came one year later-in 1948. MH

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