In Earth, director Deepa Mehta brings the monumental disaster of the Indian subcontinent’s 1947 partition to the screen with gentleness and matter-of-factness. It fills you with a powerful, subtle sadness that lingers instead of clobbers.
Returning with her second film of a trilogy–the lesbian love story Fire tipped off a maelstrom of protests in India by Hindu fundamentalists when it was released last year–Mehta tackles the subject of partition through the eyes of a child, basing her film on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, Cracking India. Eight-year-old Lenny (Maia Sethna, who is precious and sensitive) is growing up in a family of Parsees–Persian Indians who lived as Brits and remained neutral during the partition that followed independence, when Muslims fled to newly created Pakistan and Hindus to India, amidst mass, religiously motivated slaughters.
Because of her fortunate economic status, the child, who wears a brace because of polio, lives simultaneously in two worlds: one with her cold, Anglophile parents, who host formal dinners and wear Western clothing and are seemingly disconnected from any aspect of Indian culture; and the other with her nanny Shanta (Nandita Das, who also was in Fire). It is Shanta who, even in her seemingly restricted, lower-caste world, exposes Lenny to more freedom and truths and delights than she would ever get from her family.
In Shanta’s world, there are male suitors who flock around her in the park, vying for her attention and buttering up Lenny with treats and jokes and bicycle rides. The Ice Candy Man (Hindi film superstar Aamir Khan) brings Lenny ice pops and pursues Shanta with unabashed gusto, but the Masseur (MTV Asia VJ Rahul Khanna) is the prototypically shy, intense guy who chooses to pine patiently from the sidelines. They’re part of a group of lower-caste characters–Muslim, Hindu and Sikh–who hang out in the park and discuss the fate of India, sometimes attacking each other’s religions, other times pledging solidarity to one another. Lenny takes it all in silently, rarely showing her fear or frustration at being caught between the two worlds. When she does show it, it’s quickly soothed by Shanta’s hugs and mature explanations–like when the young daughter of one of the family’s servants gets married off to a creepy man six times her age and Lenny recoils in fear. Her nanny tells her that the partition is “making people do crazy things.” Scenes like this–and there are quite a few–make the audience suck in its breath.
Mehta allows us to feel the impending doom in Earth, but the story remains eerily distant, kept at bay by Shanta’s budding romances (with a few scenes bordering on campy Bollywood), wide-eyed Lenny peeking in on her nanny in bed with the man she chooses, some banter with mom about the place of the Parsees (“We’re not bum-lickers, we’re chameleons,” Lenny learns) and comic relief from the jolly Ice Candy Man. There are aching hints at what’s to come, of course, like when Lenny and her cousin meet a Hindu boy in a refugee camp and he describes how he found his mom murdered and hanging from a ceiling fan, but for the most part the horror is saved for the end, exploding with flames and murders and a final, heart-stopping kidnapping.
Like Fire, which relied on the element itself for drama and emotion and metaphor, Earth doesn’t shy away from using the dusty and luminescent landscape, which shows many sides of the wondrous Delhi, from the old inner city to British colonial bungalows and surrounding wilderness spots. The performances by Das and Khanna are understated and seem effortless; Khan is a bit over the top (it’s hard to stop expecting him to break out in song and start thrusting his pelvis), but his ebullience is a good tipoff to what will befall him in the end.
Mehta’s direction is mesmerizing, carried by dewy-eyed stares and wonderfully coy looks from Das. Except for a frustratingly dragging span near the film’s climax, she moves things along at a comfortable pace. The cinematography, by Giles Nuttgens (Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), is stunning: Filtered-light scenes drenched in gold pop up like fine impressionist paintings throughout the story. At the end, we’re grateful to have had a chance to absorb such an unfathomable period in history through the all-too-real pin-prick perspective of just one girl.