UnforgettableBy Zarminae Ansari
Directed by Deepa Mehta
Written by Deepa Mehta, based on the novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa
With Nandita Das, Amir Khan, Rahul Khanna, Maia Sethna, Kitu Gidwani, Kulbhushan Kharbhanda
At the Women’s Film Festival at the Brattle Theatre in April, Earth sold out three hours before its screening. It seems that director Deepa Mehta’s reputation for controversy preceded her film. Mehta’s earlier movie Fire created a stir in India because it showed the development of a lesbian relationship between two lonely housewives married to brothers in a traditional, middle-class family. Here, she chooses an even more psychologically, emotionally, and politically loaded issue.
The movie is based on the novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa. It is about the partition of the Indian subcontinent into two countries, India and Pakistan, at the time of independence from the British in 1947. Set in the city of Lahore (now in Pakistan), the movie lets us see this historic event through the eyes of Lenny, a ten year-old Parsi girl.
While the culture and beliefs of the Parsis were beyond the scope of her novel, Bapsi Sidhwa (also a Parsi) introduces us to her little-known religious community through Lenny’s family in this semi-autobiographical story. The Parsis are descendants of the Persian Zoroastrians. They have a unique position in Indian history for being neutral, not taking sides in religious and political struggles. A dispassionate account which shows both Indian and Pakistani sides equally as victims and victimizers could be given best through this Parsi perspective, according to Sidhwa. Yet, the movie will undoubtedly offend both sides, since it spares neither, nor holds one as morally superior to the other.
This is a story of a child’s confusion about the partition, which embodies the confusion of the millions who are eventually affected by it. Lenny tries to make sense of the disruption of her comfortable, innocent world and the horrors that ruthlessly invade it. It is a story of a love triangle and a budding romance seen through Lenny’s eyes, as well as a coming of age story. It is a romance, a tragedy, a history, and a comment on the human heart: its tenderness and the beast that hides within.
Lenny is played by Maia Sethna. Doted upon by a loving household of parents and servants, the polio-stricken child is full of curiosity and energy. She regularly accompanies her beautiful Hindu nanny Shanta (Nandita Das, who also performed in Fire) to a park where they are surrounded by Shanta’s admirers -- a group of friends, which includes Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.
Shanta displays coquettish confidence in her own sexuality and revels in the advances of her admirers. Shanta is admired by this group in the park and actively pursued by two of them, both Muslims. Lenny calls them by their vocations: the Ice Candy Man (Amir Khan, a popular Indian screen idol) and the Masseur (Rahul Khanna, an MTV VJ in India). Initially, the Masseur provides the comic relief as the peacekeeping charmer, disinterested in politics. He is a charming rogue who plays upon the religious superstitions of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Later, as the politics of hate hit closer to home, Khan’s character shows a marvelous transformation from a light-hearted romantic to a person conscious of his own moral confusion because of his love for Shanta, a Hindu. Eventually, he is a man possessed by hate and a desire for revenge.
A voyeuristic quality runs throughout the film and draws the audience in. It is through Lenny’s eyes that we see the unfolding of events. She is a wide-eyed witness to such erotic scenes as Shanta making love, and such tender scenes as her mother taking off her father’s shoes and socks.
India is the largest producer of films in the world, and refers to its movie industry as Bollywood. The musical is the staple of Bollywood commercial cinema. Songs and dances are usually only shunned by documentaries, serious and realistic movies, and what came to be known as art films. These are usually seen and lauded in foreign film festivals and widely ignored in India. Interestingly enough, while Earth has all the trappings of an art film, the movie has a wonderful score by the young and gifted A.R. Rahman. There are songs and dances that are woven into the story so seamlessly and plausibly that they only make reference the genre of Bollywood films without becoming part of it.
The movie was not shot in Lahore; however, it effectively conveys the reality of the partition and will go a long way in explaining to the rest of the world the cause of the wounds that run deep even today between India and Pakistan.
An excellent cast, together with Sidhwa’s character development, plot, and narrative, deserve a great deal of the credit for the impact of the movie. Deepa Mehta deserves credit for bringing it to the screen and putting it all together. One is left with unforgettable images from the movie. Ultimately, this is a movie that you cannot miss, one that will have people standing in groups outside the theater discussing it long after it is over.