Deepa Mehta’s Earth is the second in her film trilogy of women’s lives in India as the country exited from British colonial rule between 1938 and 1947.  The first was, Fire (1996), based on a 1941 story by Ismat Chughtai, titled Lihaf,  which explores the condition of two women in unhappy marriages who eventually find comfort in each other.  Chughtai was hauled into court on obscenity charges in 1944.  Even in 1998 the portrayal of homosexuality in movies was too much for some; small scale riots with arson and beatings erupted.  The film was shut down in several places, though in Calcutta the audience and staff beat back the mob and resumed their viewing.  The last of the three, Water (2005), is set in 1938, nine years before independence, in a widows’ ashram in Varanasi, India  –though it had to filmed in Sri Lanka after mobs shut down the production along the Ganges.  Widows in India, can be as young as seven years old.  Around this turns the tale. 

I was interested particularly in Earth (1998) for its place during 1947, the year of independence and partition of Pakistan and India.  Not only did some one million people die in the ensuing violence but over twelve million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were displaced in what is the largest such human displacement in history.  [The Greek-Turkish population exchange of the 1920s involved about two million; the Soviet internal forced migrations from 1920 to 1945 totaled some 6 million.]  Although I had some knowledge of that history through a life-long interest in Mahatma Gandhi, who pleaded in vain against partition and for all religions and castes to ” live together in brotherly love,” it was not for history’s time-line that I watched the film.

My obsession for years has been to understand how mass violence, whether popular and communal in origin, or state initiated, takes hold of people, how it makes possible emotions and actions that only weeks earlier would have been unthinkable, how it so easily cuts to shreds the religious beliefs of the participants, often reassembling sacred exhortations to love and acceptance into calls for murder of the heretics, the enemy, the other.  Mehta’s Earth, is one of the few movies or novels I have seen that pays attention to, and charts the step by step dissolution of community and the rise of murderous antagonism.

 In the beginning all is lovely and light.  A well to do Parsi (read Zoroastrian) family with a disabled girl live in Lahore as rumors and news of the coming partition begin to swirl. At their dinner table a departing British functionary, a Sikh, a Muslim and a Hindu gather.  Arguments erupt and fall to a simmer thanks to adept hostessing and the backbone of British manners.  Under the table, Lenny, [Maia Sethna] the shy daughter with a brace on one leg, eavesdrops and teases the grown-ups.  The lovely Shanta [Nandita Das], a Hindu,  is her nanny, her Ayah, and love interest for two young Muslim men. The cook is Muslim, his helper Hindu.

 In a park near the zoo, Shanta with Lenny in tow as her ward/chaperone holds court with her two chief admirers, Dil Navaz, the Ice Candy Man, [Aamir Khan]  bold and amusing, and Hassan, the Masseur, [Rahul Khanna] shy and a gentleman.  Gathered on the grass as the conversations of friendship move to the fears and anger of separation are Hindu and Sikh friends.

The first sign of trouble, after the conversations have warned us, are Muslims massing through the streets of Lahore, green flags of the Prophet waving, shouting and demanding that Lahore be part of Pakistan, not left with India.  The Sethnas, father, mother and Lenny, are caught in their car, terrified as the mob storms by and over them, kicking in windows and screaming for Muslim self-determination.

Later in park, Dil Navaz plays a mock Muslim holy man, dispensing advice to the credulous from a telephone conversation with Allah.  No religious zealot, he.

A sweeper’s child, a sometime playmate of Lenny, is married off to a Christian man, who turns out to be quite old.  As a Christian wife her family hopes she will escape the coming turmoil.  Lenny’s mother explains to her, when she asks why her playmate has married such an old man, “People are so afraid they are doing crazy things.”

Tensions ratchet higher in a cheap Hindu lunch place.  As the friends eat chapati, vegetables and lentils, the Muslims say Lahore will go to Pakistan –because there are more Muslims [they were 50.1%]  The Hindus say it will go to India, as Hindus have more businesses in the city.  Sher Singh [Navtej Singh Johar], a Sikh says that the Sikhs own more land, so why should they leave. A Muslim says the Sikhs are the armed branch of the Hindus.  Personal teasing and testing turns political, globalizes.  “Are you calling me a liar?”  Singh stands and reaches across to choke a Muslim.  Hassan, the Masseur, tries to talk them down. “We eat the same food, we sing the same songs, we’ve lived with each other for centuries.  We’ll stand by each other, won’t we?”  The averted eyes and tepid assents warn of the nightmare to come.

The young men in the grass assure Lenny that the bars in the zoo will keep her safe from the lion, which she fears.  Of course, the bars are  beginning to fail.  The lion in the heart is beginning to escape, Dil Navaz tells Shanta, pleading for her to marry him and keep his under control. 

“We are all bastards,” he says, “all animals, like the lion, just waiting for the cage to open…”

He waits for a long over due train with his sisters aboard.  When it arrives, all the Muslim passengers, coming from the city of Gurdaspur, given to India, have been slaughtered, women’s breasts severed and thrown into gunny sacks.

People convert, change their names, or leave.  The handyman in the Parsi house cuts off his śikhā, a small tuft of hair at the back of his head, hoping to pass.  He claims conversion and is forced to show his circumcision to a mob of Muslims.

Sikh’s storm through the streets, catching a Muslim man and quartering him with the help of local police jeeps (mercifully shown only in the man’s terrified face.)  The fire brigade comes but instead of using water to put out burning Hindu tenements, pours gasoline on the fires. ” Good!”  says Dil Navaz.  “The firemen must be Muslim. “

The love triangle enters the maelstrom when Dil Navaz sees Hassan making love to Shanta, having promised to convert to Hinduism and take her to Amritsar, an uncontested city.

The final minutes are wrenching as political rage and thirst for revenge storm the Parsi house,  betraying the love we have seen so sweetly displayed throughout the film.  Lenny’s voice, as an older woman, ends the movie,  regretting her own culpability in her Ayah’s death. The screen goes to black and the numbers scroll: One million dead.  7 million Muslims,  5 million Hindus and Sikhs uprooted.

It is quite a film, as much a study of the power of fear and rumor to overwhelm social relationships, friendships and love as a history lesson.  Though Mehta doesn’t make any grand claims I would say she has the twelve step program to mass murder down cold.  It repeats itself almost identically, everywhere.

What keeps Earth from being on critics’ top 100 film lists are several problems.  A distracting prettiness in too many scenes interferes with the increase of dread and grip of inevitability; even the few scenes of terrible violence are too ‘nicely’ lit. Though the musical score is often appropriate to action and emotion there are a few Merchant-Ivory  scenes with sounds of bucolic, care-free loveliness that seem to come from Mehta’s other sensibilities — romantic comedy, perhaps.  Although Aamir Khan in particular gives a believable, if not quite riveting, performance, Mehta doesn’t quite escape a Bollywood like soap opera effect, in which the actors remain somewhat outside their characters, not fully inhabiting them, their passions, as it were, still on a leash.  There are moments when she is too schematic, as early in the movie when Lenny, distraught at her nanny’s tales of coming partition, hurls a dinner plate to the floor.  When forgiven by her doting mother she asks, ” can a country be broken, too?” Later, having seen the street butchery from a balcony, she pulls a doll apart, which seems an unnecessary, Cliff Notes like, interpolation.

Non Indians, like me, unfamiliar with the cultures, will lose details, making it a bit harder to follow than for a Pakistan or Indian native.  It’s not immediately apparent to me at the beginning,  by dress, or accent which of the young men are Hindu and which Muslim, what the head covering indicates, or that a Muslim man might be singing lyrics to a Hindu song — and so signalling the normalcy out of which the terror is rising.  The name Hari would tell an Indian or Pakistani viewer which religion the man is.  We don’t know.  When Hassan comes out of a Sikh house, having said he will help take them to safety and hears a crowd chanting, re-deciding his course of action, we don’t know what he has heard,  who is chanting what, or why, whether he fears them, or the double-cross is in and he’s leaving his friends to their fate. We don’t know what the small necklaced object is Muslims are touching in prayer or swearing an oath.

As an aside, I had to wonder, too, what on earth the very nice Parsi family was thinking, staying in Lahore as people fled all around them, letting their daughter into the streets in which they themselves had been scared to death. We never know, after the final, climactic scenes, what happens to them, though Lenny is clearly alive as her grown-woman’s voice brings an end to her memories and story, which were the film.

And another aside: where was Gandhi?  He was the singular figure who had forced Great Britain out of his homeland and was very very unhappy about partition, though after seeing it a fait accompli he acquiesced.  Surely he should have been mentioned, if not held closely by one or another of the characters. Doubly curious because he plays an important part in Mehta’s later film, Water (really lovely despite its difficult subject matter.)

So while not perhaps all it could have been,  for me it is a unique portrayal of the universal human reversion to our demons of fear, bursting, volcano like through the thought-to-be normalcy of life.  Where does one insert oneself if the rumbling begins in our own lives?  Is the demonization in America of those not believing as I believe, the contempt, the vile language, the death threats, the never ending napalm-streams of language simply life in a rough and tumble world, or harbinger of partition, separation and communal war?  How do voices of safety and calm lower the emotion charged voices of aggrievement and harm?

No answer of course, but if more could see how ordinary people ‘let the lions in their hearts loose’ perhaps ordinary people can find better ways to extract the thorn of anger and keep the beasts at bay.