Notes on Earth-1947

I will be presenting Earth at a screening in Utrecht. These are my notes.

Why is this movie called Earth or 1947?

1947 is the year two nations Pakistan and India were born out of British India.

The British East India Company had its presence in India from the early 18th century. The Company was dissolved and British governance was formed in the late 19th century after the Revolt of 1857. During this revolt the British realised that they had to use the policy of divide and rule if they wanted to maintain their position in India. The Revolt was termed as the First War of Independence. One of the reasons for the revolt was a sepoy (soldier) mutiny against the use of a new cartridge, this cartridge used pre-applied animal grease; to deploy them soldiers had to bite into the greased portion. The Muslim and Hindu soldiers found this offensive. Muslims took offence to the use of pork and Hindus to the use of beef, both religions stood united on ground and the British faced their strongest uprising since their control over India.

The practice of divide and rule resulted in growing dissidence between the Hindus and the Muslims. Muslims were made to feel marginalised in the Hindu dominated mainland. Their representation in future legislation and judicial formations in post Independence India was worrisome.

When the Two-Nation theory was proposed and the division sorted out with the Mountbatten plan, a Radcliffe line was drawn to demarcate the areas that were Muslim and those that were Hindu. The division, which was based purely on religion, was followed by unimaginable sectarian violence between the Hindus and Muslims, as people from both sides of the border got displaced due to their faith – the resentment and anger boiled over. People were being uprooted, shunted, looted, raped, violated and pushed into refugee camps on both sides of the border. It is to this year and this page in history that the movie takes us to.

The name Earth because a land got sliced, its people ripped apart, communities dissected – for the price of the birth of two nation states – on the 14th of August 1947 Pakistan became an independent country and on the 15th of August 1947 India was born at the stroke of midnight.

 Ice Candy Man – the book

The film is an adaptation of a book by Pakistani-American writer Bapsi Sidhwa called The Ice Candy Man or Cracking India. The story unfolds through the eyes of a young Parsi polio-afflicted girl Lenny. Bapsi Sidhwa is from Lahore (Pakistan), she too (like Lenny) was afflicted with polio and witnessed the partition; she gives a vivid account of this in an interview:

“The main memory is hearing mobs chanting slogans from a distance. It was a constant throb in the air and very threatening. Then I saw a lot of fires, it was almost like blood was in the sky, you know. And few dead bodies on my Warris road. In fact, it figured in two of the novels. I was actually walking to my private tutor, and there was this gunnysack lying by the roadside. The gardener, who was with me, just kicked the gunnysack, and a body spilled out, a dead body of a very good looking man. There was a bloodless but big wound on the side of his waist, almost as if it trimmed the waist. And I felt more of a sadness than horror. It seemed so futile — even at that time when I wasn’t really conscious of death — the waste of life”

(Montenegro 31-2).

She was part of the infected air of that time. In the young girl Lenny she finds her own voice for things she experienced in her own life. It is a personal story but told through a child’s gaze, making it an incredibly moving experience. Children have this innate quality to trust. Lenny aims at being honest but this charming adherence to truth leads to doom. Sidhwa says in the same interview that in Lenny,

“I’m establishing a sort of truthful witness whom the reader can believe. At the same time Lenny is growing up – learning, experiencing and coming up with her own conclusions […] and in understanding the nature of truth, its many guises, she gradually sheds her innocence and understands the nature of men.”

As a work of post-colonial fiction the book offers the rare opportunity to see how the minority community of Parsis (who were not Muslim nor Hindus) experienced partition. Sidhwa proves herself as a formidable storyteller mixing fact and fiction to provide a sensitive narration to this historical tale.

Deepa Mehta – element trilogy

For the director of the film Canadian-Indian Deepa Mehta, similar to Sidhwa, this was a deeply personal journey, her family too had moved from Lahore to Amritsar as Hindu refugees. The movie is part of the elemental trilogy made by Mehta, the first being Fire that dealt with lesbianism in middle class patriarchal feudal families in India, followed by Earth which dealt with partition and Water that deals with child widows in Hindu culture. All three are female-oriented. Mehta has never shied away from topics that deal with the underbelly of Indian culture and tradition, the unsaid aspects, things which are conveniently pushed under the carpet, not discussed, Mehta constantly prods and pokes these topics into discussion – especially those that deal with women. She questions them trying to seek answers and resolution.

Earth is part of the parallel cinema movement in India. In India we have this dichotomy in the Indian film industry where we have mainstream films aimed at becoming box office hits – the films with Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. And, then there are the parallel films made in small tight budget – which have more intellectual pursuits – they bank on realism – stark grim reality devoid of fluff and floss. However in Earth you will see a mainstream superstar Aamir Khan in a meaty role that of the Ice Candy Man. This film does fall into the art film category but it also boasts of the star power needed to pull crowds in. It did receive a mainstream theatre opening, and fared decent figures at the box office.

Colors of Earth

Earth captures partition evocatively but it also has many other themes – some universal – others particular to the province. Amongst these – is the need to be accepted, to be loved, our disappointment and rage when we are confronted with rejection, the politics of friendship and of human insecurities.

How class structures work in the Indian subcontinent – you will attend with Lenny a child marriage a prevalent norm in those times, today this is thankfully an illegal practice. There is duality in the tragedy – indeed it is about partition and its aftermath but it is also about human character flaws and betrayal. When faced with a bizarre circumstance, some of us become heroic, others totter under pressure, and then there are those that falter. The twin-tragic theme is interwoven into the main fabric of the film.

It would be cruel to say – enjoy the film. But do appreciate its cinematic value. The music by A.R. Rehman (who won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire – to put it in a Western context) is rustic with folk songs. The locations and atmosphere of the film is true to life, you can feel the dust and grime. The camera techniques and photography transport you back to another era. Watch this film for the three women it represents – Bapsi Sidhwa, Deepa Mehta and Lenny.

As much as this history is painful to watch, and painful to tell – it offers lessons to be learnt – for the two nations and also for us – those who follow and study cultural trends, the fictional and non-fictional accounts of history, of gender, nationhood and most of all – identity. For me, at a personal level, it remains a tender wound, of what my grandparents loved and lost. How they recreated life, rebuilt dreams and homes but as their children we remain plagued with that nostalgia of what it was like and what we will never have.

Further reading:
Baldwin, Shauna Singh. What the Body Remembers: A Novel. New York: N.A. Talese, 1999.
Menon, Ritu. Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1998.
Montenegro, David. Points of Departure: International Writers on Writing and Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1991.
Nair, Neeti. Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011.
Pritam, Amrita. Pinjar: The Skeleton and Other Stories. Trans. Singh Khushwant. New Delhi: Tara, 2009.
Sidhwa, Bapsi. Cracking India: A Novel. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 1991.
Singh, Khushwant. Train to Pakistan. New York: Grove, 1956.

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