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The historical division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan is known simply as partition. But the word hardly seems adequate for describing one of the century's bloodiest events. As the British departed in August 1947, the birth of the two nations was accompanied by a holocaust--at least 500,000 people died and more than 12 million were uprooted in the largest, most horrific exchange of population ever.
Lahore, the genteel capital of the Punjab, was the epicenter of this catastrophe. It was here that novelist Bapsi Sidhwa, then barely eight years old, became a reluctant witness to history. Pakistan was conceived by politicians as a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims, but its creation bisected the Punjab and unleashed a medieval-style religious frenzy. As the forced migration and slaughter began, Hindus and Sikhs fled in one direction, Muslims in another. Sidhwa, however, is a Parsi, part of a tiny religious community that remained mostly untouched by partition's madness. She therefore had a relatively safe ringside seat to the ethnic cleansing on both sides.
Sidhwa wrote a novel about that tumultuous period, Cracking India, based on her childhood in Lahore. Now it has been made into a movie, Earth, by Deepa Mehta, an Indian-born director who resides in Toronto. Mehta's previous effort, Fire, won kudos on the international movie circuit, but stirred controversy in her native land, with its depiction of a lesbian relationship between two sisters-in-law in a traditional Indian family. Earth ran into problems even before filming began. Officials wouldn't allow Mehta to shoot in Lahore, so she had to settle for Delhi. When the film was completed, Pakistan barred it because it had been made by an Indian--even though it was based on a book by a Pakistani decorated with one of the country's highest honors. Elsewhere, Earth is winning awards at international film festivals. It recently bagged the grand jury prize at the Melbourne Film Festival, and it opened last month to enthusiastic reviews in several countries, including the U.S. and India.
Earth depicts the violence and tragedy of partition through the eyes of Lenny, a Parsi girl with a polio-stricken leg encased in calipers. Lenny's ayah (nanny) is a vivacious young woman with a legion of male admirers, including the roguish ice-candy man. The ayah is Hindu, but her mesmerizing personality seems to make others transcend their religious identity. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsi are, as always, unified around her, writes Sidhwa.
Lenny, her ayah and friends meet regularly in a park under Queen Victoria's gunmetal statue, but their innocent world is shattered when slogans suddenly rent the air and the killings begin. The ice-candy man goes to a railway station to receive his sisters coming from India. When the train arrives, he discovers dismembered bodies and gunny sacks stuffed with women's severed breasts. All of the passengers have been massacred. The experience prompts him to join Lahore's murderous Muslim mobs. In the end, he leads one such bloodthirsty group to Lenny's house and, tricking the girl, abducts her Hindu nanny. The last shot in the film shows Lenny more than half a century later, recalling the pain of her childhood years. The older Lenny is played by Sidhwa.
Unlike the Holocaust in Europe, there was no clear distinction between victim and aggressor in the bloodbath of the Punjab. Evil stalked the land, and both sides were consumed by it. Mehta's Earth may not be the epic masterpiece needed to capture fully the monumental tragedy of partition, but it is an intimate and authentic portrait. The film is dedicated to the director's father, whose family suffered during partition. Mehta, 49, was born close to the newly created border in the sacred Sikh city of Amritsar, and grew up on a daily diet of potboiler films from Bombay (her father owned a theater) and tales of partition. If you're a Punjabi, hearing the horror stories from those times is an integral part of growing up, she says. For me, it was very important to show what happened.
Mehta represents a new breed of Indian filmmakers who aren't afraid to take up subjects that have been virtually taboo. Despite the scale of the tragedy, mainstream Bombay cinema has never looked closely at partition. For Earth, however, one of Bollywood's top stars, Aamir Khan, agreed to play the unsympathetic and difficult role of the ice-candy man. Mehta's next film, Water, the last of a trilogy, also focuses on a previously untouchable theme--the life of a child widow in the holy Hindu city of Benares. Indian cinema is growing up, says Shekhar Kapur, who directed last year's highly acclaimed Elizabeth. People are now daring to make a different kind of film. And the world is taking notice.