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Wednesday, December 7, 2022
NEW YORK, Oct 19 1999 (IPS) - The 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, one of the most traumatic events of the 20th century, saw one million peopled killed while millions more were forced to flee their homes.
Yet, until now, it has been all but invisible on the cinema screens of South Asia.
India’s mammoth film industry, in particular, has stayed away from trying to depict the turbulent flight of Hindus from Muslim- dominated Pakistan and of Muslims from Hindu-majority India – except for an adaptation in the 1960s of Khushwant Singh’s grim novel, ‘Train to Pakistan.’
Like the World War-II holocaust, partition is a subject that touches so many raw nerves even today – from Muslim-Hindu violence to the legacy of British colonialism – that it has been regarded as unfilmable.
But now, Indian director Deepa Mehta whose last film was the equally controversial ‘Fire’ – a story whose look at lesbianism sparked rioting in parts of India three years ago – has met the challenge with her new film, ‘Earth.’
‘Earth’ – now being shown in the United States – has become a surprise success in India where, under the title ‘1947,’ it has enthralled audiences who have clearly longed for a chance to remember what Partition was like.
Mehta’s film is part of a trilogy that grapple with large questions about Indian identity: ‘Fire,’ which touched on issues of sexuality and feminism; ‘Earth,’ which deals with nationalism and ethnic divisions; and the forthcoming ‘Water,’ which is intended to explore Indian religions.
The director’s new film is an adaptation of Pakistani novelist Bapsi Sidhwa’s wistful book ‘Cracking India,’ a look back at Partition from the eyes of a young Parsi girl, crippled from using her legs without a brace, who lives in Lahore – a Punjabi city now in Pakistan.
Sidhwa’s alternately funny and sad novel used a simple, but effective, device to examine the madness of the Hindu-Muslim violence unleashed by Partition: its protagonist, Lenny, is young enough to examine the killings without any partisan prejudices, and without understanding or excusing Partition’s horrors.
Of course, that could have made for a simplistic, overly sentimental film, and there are times when the movie’s Lenny (played by child actress Kitu Gidwani) too obviously pulls at the audience’s heartstrings.
When she asks her mother after breaking a dish, “Can you break a country?”, the symbolism is too heavy-handed to be effective.
Yet Mehta is for the most part an insightful, subtle director, who makes a film that shows the real tragedy that happened when, as India and Pakistan neared independence in August 1947, communal madness destroyed the fabric of social relations that had previously bound Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Parsi together.
That social fabric – perhaps a little romanticised, but nevertheless real – is shown in the friendship of a cluster of young men, who are Muslim, Hindu and Sikh, who gather in Lahore’s parks to entertain Lenny and her beautiful Ayyah (Nandita Das), or nanny.
Among the circle of shy suitors who all seem enchanted by the Ayyah are Dil Nawaz, a Muslim ice-cream seller (played by Indian heart-throb Aamir Khan in a shrewd example of casting against type); Hassan, a Muslim masseur (Rahul Khanna); and several bantering Sikhs and Hindus.
The friends are clearly not dogmatic: Dil Nawaz, for example, enjoys conning people in his disguise as a holy man, in which he mocks organised religion by pretending to receive calls on a direct phone line from God.
Yet as Partition becomes inevitable, the religious tensions that led Pakistani founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah to demand the creation of a separate Muslim state – called Pakistan, or ‘land of the pure’ – from India tear at Lenny’s world.
Lenny’s Parsi family believe themselves to be immune from problems, since Parsis (the followers of Zoroaster, descended from Persians) are neither Hindu nor Muslim, but try to adapt to both cultures. “Think of Switzerland,” Lenny’s deluded father says, wistfully imagining himself to be part of a different, European world.
When Lenny’s mother explains to her about how the Parsis’ small presence has led to their policy of neutrality, the young girl concludes wryly: “So we are not bum-lickers – we are invisible.”
Mehta, however, shows how no-one can be invisible or immune when political and religious violence are on the rise.
Dil Nawaz shifts from being a friendly Muslim to a staunch opponent of Hindus after his sisters are killed on a train coming from India. Hassan, on the other hand, tries to shelter people from violence, including a Sikh friend distressed at the prospect of having to leave Lahore.
All the characters, in fact, are on a collision course: that of history, in which large forces wipe out personal friendships in an instant.
The love that Dil Nawaz and Hassan both have for the Hindu Ayyah itself becomes twisted by the violence, in ways that ultimately destroy all three.
Indeed, ‘Earth’ is at its strongest in shifting the audience’s expectations of its characters’ actions. Aamir Khan – normally a noble, if dull, hero in Indian films – demonstrates how likable people can become caught up in evil, and Nandita Das offers a heartbreaking portrayal of someone unable to understand the violence around her.
The film is in many ways a tour de force, showing many sides of Lahore – from the kite-flying Muslim celebration of Besant to the annihilation of the city’s Hindu population in the 1947 violence – that has not been depicted before.
For United States audiences, the film has been a small hit, opening in cinemas in New York, Washington and other cities.
But the success of ‘1947’ in India, where the message of communal insanity and personal betrayal remains relevant today, is an even stronger indication that Mehta and Sidhwa have delivered a message whose time has come.
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