With India and Pakistan seemingly on the verge of throwing nukes at each other, it’s enlightening — but hardly surprising — to go back to the immediate roots of the contemporary conflict and discover, as we do in Earth, that it’s just as senseless as most of the others we find flaring up around the world. As in the former Yugoslavia, as in the Middle East, as in Northern Ireland, the India/Pakistan discord comes down to religion: India is Hindu, Pakistan is Muslim. This divide was created by the British when they withdrew from India in 1947 and split a unified and religiously diverse country into two nations. Millions of people were uprooted — Hindus were forced to leave the newly created Pakistan, and Muslims in what remained of India were forced to relocate to Pakistan. One million people were killed in religious fighting.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call this the Indian Holocaust, and I don’t think it’s unfair to liken Earth to Schindler’s List, though on a much smaller scale. Deepa Mehta, the Indian-Canadian writer/director of Earth, has created a deeply moving, immensely powerful film that looks at the events of 1947 from a child’s point of view, offering us a tiny but clear perspective on how tribal hatreds separate people once close, and how a child’s innocence can be used and betrayed.
Nine-year-old Lenny (Maaia Sethna) lives with her wealthy, religiously neutral Parsee parents in Lahore. Lenny spends much of her time with her beautiful nanny, Shanta (Nandita Das), and Shanta’s many suitors, including Dil Navaz (Aamir Khan) and Hasan (Rahul Khanna). Shanta is Hindu, Dil Navaz and Hasan are Muslim, and their circle of friends includes Sikhs as well, but they all get along just fine, with only the minor debates you’d expect to find among good friends.
The first half of Earth is relentlessly sunny: a colorful kite festival celebrates spring; her mother teaches Lenny to dance a waltz in their English-style parlor saturated with golden afternoon sunlight; Lenny’s family’s warm and bright garden is the setting for much of Dil Navaz’s and Hasan’s wooing of Shanta. We are seeing Lenny’s point of view — as a protected and well-loved child, she is unaware of the discord hovering under the surface of her world, of the seeds of disaster being planted. But we see. We see the hatred starting to simmer beneath the debates among Shanta and her friends — the group is a microcosm of diverse India. We see the park where Shanta and her friends lounge, once a gathering place for Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh alike, now ominously empty. The question of whether Lahore should go to Pakistan or India is foremost on the minds of all, and the discussion is rancorous. “Why fight among friends?” Hasan asks, but gets only half-hearted agreement.
Earth turns darker with the division of India. The second half of the film is set mostly at night, and its here that the film sears with its images: A pro-Pakistan street protest walks terrifyingly right over Lenny’s family’s car, smashing its windshield. A silent swarm of Muslim refugees pours through the narrow streets of Lahore, now part of Pakistan, people forced from the new India, wordlessly somber people carrying children, goats, all their possessions on their backs. With the city now officially Muslim, and atrocities by Hindus fresh in the minds of Lahore’s Muslims, Shanta is in danger. The previously friendly rivalry between Dil Navaz and Hasan for Shanta’s affections turns deadly in this atmosphere, and Lenny, who loves all three of them, will be used in a way that will grow to haunt the adult Lenny who narrates the film.
Part of Deepa Mehta’s trilogy on the elements — Fire, a love story set in contemporary New Delhi, was released in 1996; Water is in preproduction — Earth nevertheless stands alone as a potently affecting and effective film, one the viewer is not likely to soon forget.