Technicolour Partition

An eminently watchable movie based on a mediocre novel.

reviewed by Paramjit Rai

Talking to Rehan Ansari in these pages some months back, filmmaker Deepa Mehta noted that making films has become a "hybrid" process, and her latest offering, Earth, clearly is one. Based on a book by a Pakistani author, with Indian actors, filmed in Delhi, and funded by a Canadian film company, the film is patently international. And given that the making of the film was such, the audience targeted also seems to be equally hybrid — those wanting a serious film, yet familiar with Bollywood's musical bonanzas.

Earth is an adaptation of Bapsi Sidhwa's novel Cracking India. Mehta re-wrote the dialogue and adapted from the original English into Punjabi, Urdu, and Gujarati. And it is to her credit that she has rendered an eminently watchable film from a passably written book.

Earth tells the story of the scorching summer of 1947 in Lahore (just before Radcliffe's partition plan was announced) as seen through the eyes of Lenny-Baby, a polio afflicted little Parsi girl, and her Hindu ayah, Shanta. At the time of Partition, Lahore was home to a tiny, but financially strong, Parsi community, along with the numerically stronger and more politically active Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus. Where the film succeeds most, is in this depiction of the dilemma of being a Parsi (as writer Sidhwa herself is) in a conflict defined by religions, but one that ignored the Parsi community. While the other communities were caught in the cult of violence, potential targets like the Parsis were not touched.

This is echoed in the portrayal of Lenny-Baby's father as the gruff, English-loving Parsi who finds solace in the commotion ringing outside his home by telling himself, mantra like, that the "Parsees are the Swiss of India" —non-interfering and non-controversial. So it is particularly striking when Lenny-Baby asks her mother if Parsis are the bum-lickers of the British. Her mother reassures her that they are not, instead they are the sugar in the milk, in India they are invisible, but sweet.

Earth revolves around the love of two Muslim youths —"Icecandywallah" and Hussain "Malishwallah" — for Shanta, a Hindu. The strains in the love affair mirror the tensions in Lahore city as Partition violence slowly builds to a crescendo, ultimately engulfing our lovers. Here the director has skillfully portrayed the way some individuals manipulated the 'madness' of Partition for their own gains.

Mehta has given us the Partition in technicolour. We see ghostly trains ferrying mutilated and bleeding bodies, rioting on the streets, and expectedly, the law enforcers aiding the bigoted rioters in the destruction of buildings; and unending processions of sweaty and frightened refugees descending on Lahore in kafilas (lines of refugees walking mainly on foot from east to west and vice versa) from East Punjab. But these are the well-known generalities of Partition captured well both in the book and the film. The real complaint against Mehta's Earth is that there is no soul to the drama. She has fallen into the trap of using broad strokes to delineate the chaos. Rather than delicately etch the story, this is a film that is too aware of its importance. It is a shame that Mehta didn't go beyond showing cliches, such as the Muslim support for Jinnah and the Muslim League, and the Hindu-Sikh support for the Congress.

One is reminded of another Partition film, Garam Hawa (1973) directed by M.S. Sathyu), in which, like the Parsis in Lahore, Balraj Sahni, in the role of the Muslim patriarch and owner of a small shoe-making outlet in Agra, fights for the right to remain in his home. The film is set in the heady days just after Independence and the old Muslim's commitment to his home, livelihood, and the right to remain in Agra with dignity and integrity, is wonderfully and delicately portrayed by the talented Sahni. One can sense the bewilderment of his character in the attempt of those who encourage him to move to the strange land of Pakistan. One wishes Mehta had displayed some of the emotional commitment that clearly must have gone into the making of Garam Hawa. All the more so, following her statement that she chose Partition as the theme because her father's family came from Lahore, and she "grew up with the disillusionment of Partition".

In quick succession, after Earth, I watched two films based on traumatic historical events: Beloved, based on Toni Morrison's book about a freed black slave woman, and Life is Beautiful, a film that looks in ironic humour at the life in a Nazi concentration camp. The filmmakers have taken on the enormous task of rendering the 'unsayable' in images. The emphasis is on how troubled times force people to respond in ways that they would otherwise have never imagined, as they grapple with the consequences of political events to keep their dignity and families intact. In the end, Earth, Life is Beautiful and Beloved, along with Garam Hawa, are appreciated for their heroic attempts at trying to capture the essence of what in the end is mystifying and soul-destroying experiences.

Earth concludes with the sounds of a Sikh hymn, perhaps underscoring the notion of one creator with multiple names (Rahim, Ram and Waheguru). It leaves one with an exasperating question: considering the bigotry that still exists in both the countries wrenched out of Partition, was it really worth it?

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