Earth, politics, and the politics of life

The Aazaadi Sawaari brings us to 1947. We're off the elephant in Mangal Pandey. The bullocks from Lagaan (they were resilient!) carted us some four and a half decades forward, and deserved a rest. On to the Ice Candy Man's bicycle for this...

There are period films that tell true stories while picking sides. There are period films that tell fictitious stories and pick no sides. And then there are period films that tell these fictitious stories so well, they are easy to believe because of the ease with which we can relate to them, a product inherent in the portrayal of realism. 1947 Earth (also referred to as Earth) was one such film.

Starring Aamir Khan, Nandita Das, Rahul Khanna, Maia Seth, and others. Directed by Deepa Mehta (whose Fire-Earth-Water trilogy this was part of), and with music by A. R. Rahman, Earth was based on a novel titled Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa . The film released in 1998. Saw this first a couple of years ago on a flight back from Denver (speaking of Denver and politics, I'm looking forward to the Democratic National Convention next week, and am hoping for a Joe Biden announcement tomorrow). Have since been in shock and awe at the film's brilliance. Here is theme music from the film (play it as you read along)...

...and here are some notes and highlights:

1. The story was set in 1947, prior to partition, and based in Lahore (of Punjab province in Pakistan). Shabana Azmi narrated for Lenny Baby, a Parsi child. It was through her that we saw the goings on at the time. The introduction was striking, and laid the platform for the film in fantastic fashion:

2. Bunty Sethna (Kitu Gidwani) played Lenny's mother. Of all the actors in the film, she was the biggest surprise for me. You might recall she also had a role in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008), as Meghna's mother. Beautiful and articulate in Earth, she played her part to perfection.

3. Shanta (the fabulous Nandita Das) was the aaya (maid servant) at Lenny's home. She was worried about how the British would divide India.

4. Imam Din (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) played a significant role, especially in the second half (more on him later).

5. Gulshan Grover appeared in an important and rather uncharacteristic role:

6. A scene at the park was used to introduce a group of friends, with representation of various faiths.

While each was important, two were integral to the film. There was Hassan (Rahul Khanna) the masseur. Yes, he is Vinod Khanna's son, and won a Best Debut Filmfare Award for his performance in this film.

Then there was Dil Nawaaz (Aamir Khan), a.k.a Ice Candy Man, who made an entrance with a sher (a couplet). Much like he's made the discotheque his own, he has made this his own too, and several films feature him with similar memorable shers.

7. The scene was crucial in setting the stage, and the conversation representative of the setting.

8. Of course, Dil Nawaaz often made sense too. Loved this bit. Also see #17 (c) below.

9. This frame makes it because the same punitive position will be highlighted in the next movie in the Aazaadi Sawaari series.

10. There was a great scene that captured the festivities of Basant (festival marking the beginning of spring -- read about its cross-cultural appeal at this link). The attention to detail shone here, e.g. Dil Nawaaz's dresser was representative of its era, and those bottles of fragrance -- itar -- were well used!

And the chemistry between Nandita and Aamir was excellent. They are good friends in real life, and their acting here validated this very convincingly.

11. The scene featuring Allah's (God's) Telephone was fantastic.

Dil Nawaaz the sufi saint for a bit was effortlessly pulled off. And well, too. The way in which he said the sentence with Bismillah... (in the name of God...) and Allahu Akbar (God is great) were very accurate depictions of the (non-Arabic) accent with which saints of the demographic tend to say it. Well researched!

It provided effective comic relief too. Lenny agreed.

Again, the dialogue was fitting:

12. The song Banno Rani doubled as an excellent, excellent wedding song, and a chance for Dil Nawaaz and Shanta to share another memorable moment.

Of course, Hassan wasn't too pleased. They had quite a love triangle going.

This is one of my favorite wedding songs in a film. With it, A. R. Rahman managed to once again capture the essence of the moment. The song also reminded me of the song Yeh Ladki Haaye Allah in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham a few years later (2001), for two reasons: 1) the ambiance; 2) Banno.

13. References to the Mughals are always welcome (here's why). Although as Mangal Pandey had rightfully said in his film, the Mughals deserved blame in India being overtaken by the British, because they got complacent, too comfortable, and too self-centric. Not the context in which it was used here, but relevant.

The dinner conversation got more intriguing, of course.

And then began the migration that would re-shape the subcontinent and scar its history forever.

We were shown how deeply the partition affected the region, through the eyes of Hassan, Shanta, Dil Nawaaz, and Lenny. How would the love triangle play out?

What would Shanta do?

Why was Mr. Singh so worried?

Why did Mrs. Sethna find it difficult to fall asleep?

Aside: I wouldn't be sleeping if I were Mr. Sethna...seriously ;)

Would some people talking sense make a difference?

Discover the rest for yourself. It was gripping, disturbing, shocking, and simply brilliant, complemented with fantastic performances. I had seen Nandita Das in Fire prior to this. She was fantastic there. And here, given what I thought was an equally complex role (if not more so), she did even better. Rahul Khanna was excellent in his debut.

Aamir Khan delivered yet another fine performance. As of 1998, this was probably among his top-three ever, which is saying a *lot* (several suggested it was his best at the time). And one could see why. He rode an emotional roller-coaster in the film, and played his roles brilliantly. The plot demanded a versatile actor for the major role of Ice Candy Man (that was the title of the book, too), and who better to showcase the many faces of Dil Nawaaz than Aamir?!

14. The dialogue throughout the film was carefully placed. Most of it was used extremely wisely to allude to partition. Sample these:

15. The film included four Lagaaniites too. Two of them were discussed above. Here are two more: Aditya Lakhia (who played Kachra in Lagaan):

Raghuvir Yadav (Bhura in Lagaan):

16. The art direction and cinematography were top-notch. In the scene at the park (#6 above), the artwork on this case was splendid, with the classic Jawaan Hai Mohabbat by Noor Jehan (watch the original song at this link) playing in the background.

In the Basant sequence (#10 above), the rooftops of neighboring buildings were full of activity, and the people focused on their kite-flying (which can be a lot of fun on the rooftops of Lahore, as noted in point 5 of my review of Tashan (2008)). Add to that a song by Sukhwinder Singh (Rut Aa Gayi Re) playing in the background, and the ambiance was just very real.

A scene in which Lenny and her parents drove through this street was beautifully placed, the surroundings once again realistic.

17. Each of the brilliant individual performances combined for an even better whole. Yes, the film was a love triangle, but its impacts on the viewers transcended the love story. I don't believe I'll ever forget the sights and sounds from this, particularly from the second half. Painful. Vivid. Powerful. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give it is that I do not believe I have seen a film that has come as close to capturing the hopelessness, helplessness, and tumult of the partition of 1947 (bringing to life the narratives of our elders, or what we know through documented evidence).

The film is not for the faint of heart. Loyalties to the viewers' country (India or Pakistan) and religion (whether you are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsi, or even Christian) will most definitely be questioned. And one who is offended easily will be tested. But all of this will be done without preaching much, and in a matter-of-fact style of story-telling that I found appealing. And that was because at its core, Earth is about the politics of life. Here are three buckets I would categorize them in, at a very top level:

a. Politics of Love: The word 'politics' is often (unjustly, I believe) used in a less than ideal light. I am reminded of the first words my first Political Science professor said to his freshman class, "Whenever you have more than two people interacting, you have politics involved". Earth showed this, at a very foundational level, with its love triangle, which was used to remarkable effect. Full credit for this was earned by the the three actors for incredible performances. The politics of love, especially when coupled with the politics of religion, were portrayed very effectively. The silver lining to the politics of romantic love, the film told us, is that it is least likely to have a major impact (relative to the other kinds) on the masses (unless you're Jodhaa or Akbar :)

b. Politics of Geography: Given that the film was centered around partition of the Indian sub-continent, this was the context in which everything was said and done. Of course, the land mattered. There was a sense conveyed that the British hastened partition (which they did), and that had they not, there might not have been well over a million people killed during it. Yet, the film broke new ground here, and focused more on reminding us that the accountability for the massacre that accompanied partition was as much a product of the politics that propagated hatred, much of which stemmed from within.

c. Politics of Religion: This was the most sensitive of the three. As with the other two, the film dove head-first into the issue, not once letting it distract the viewer from the politics of geography while emphasizing the blindness with which people sought to kill in the name of religion -- a grave injustice to any God or Prophet or Saint of any religion. Loved how the message was the common good taught by all religions.

The screenplay shone here. And so did the song that played with the end credits. Here is a post with the lyrics and my translation of the song Ishwar Allah.

18. Aside: The politics of religion was the subject of this drawing I did a few years ago. Titled 'For Hope of Love', the piece (5 feet by 4 feet) is a sentimental favorite, although technically not worth much. The structure to the bottom-right is intended to serve the purpose of any place of worship, a mosque, temple, or church, for example. The idea being, harm one, and the others are equally hurt along with it, for in essence, they symbolize the same thing.

There is a fire to the bottom-left (its black and white colors are hardly a coincidence), and that was finger-painted by one of my best friends (a gori) who believes in the message. She went on to medical school, and today, helps children with disabilities in Kolkata.

For the entire sub-continent to foster a culture of understanding will require patience and a heck of a philosophical shift on the politics of life. This was the biggest takeaway from Earth in my viewing experience. It begs us to hope and pray, say 'never again!', and ask: has much changed since 1947, and what have we done at an individual level to contribute to fostering a community more appreciative of its diversity?

Have you seen it? What did you think?

Movie rating: 4.25/5 (Outstanding!)

Music rating: 4/5 (Excellent!)

My classification: R (for violence, theme)

On a personal note
And if you've read this far (thank you!) end on a light-hearted note. In retrospect, this is not a film I would recommend one see aboard an airplane, given the theme (and that tears escape every once in a while, no matter how hard one tries). I almost felt like wearing Aakaash's expression (you know the film, I assume) for the passenger sitting next to me, for she couldn't take her eyes off my screen.

For the record, we exchanged business cards before going our ways :o)

Jai Hind.


Anonymous said...

I thought the entire cast (with the exception of the wooden Rahul Khanna) were way better than the movie they were in - especially Aamir who was quite scary at certain moments. Apart from that, I found the movie rather ugly and thought its main objective was to shock, rather than tell the story of three people caught up in the whirlwind of history. Partition was the most turbulent period of recent Indian history and it has recieved considerable attention in both Indian literature and Indian performing arts (plays, cinema and TV series). The best depiction of the plight of Indians/Pakistanis caught up in Partition (that I have seen) are Govind Nihalani's miniseries Tamas and M. S. Sathyu's Garam Hawa - neither of which had to resort to gory scenes in order to show the horrors of communal killing in the wake of Partition.

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Bollyviewer: Thanks for your recommendations. I'll be sure to check out 'Garam Hawa' at least, since it should be more easily available.

Agree that Rahul Khanna was the weaker link in the cast (alongside some of the finest in the business), although he didn't have much to do, did he?

Earth was graphic, which is why I don't recommended it unconditionally. This is also why I had avoided it until not too long ago. I haven't seen many films on partition (there's only so much hurt one can take), so I know I've missed out on quite a bit, while having little to benchmark against.

Agree that one of the major objectives of Earth was to shock (the cover art uses a synonym). And from a film making standpoint (I haven't even read the book -- agree too that the cast made the movie tick), then, I thought it did quite well in so doing.

Although some of it surely could have had as much of an impact with merely the dialogue, as opposed to the sights and sounds.

I've seen it more times since, but only the first half which had little violence, and the very last scene, which belonged to Aamir and Kulbushan.

Given that I don't like much violence in my movies (I forwarded through bits of 'Shootout At Lokhandwala' too, and 1970s-style dishoom dishoom will always work well for me, lol), I don't think I'll ever want to see the second half of Earth in its entirety again. But I didn't want to hold that against the film, because it impacted me more in positive ways than otherwise, most notably the theme of unity and commonalities across religions, and the ease with which people overlook(ed) it.

Seems Tamas and Garam Hawa did an excellent job of conveying the message! Just noticed through your links that the latter even won the '1974 Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration'. What a treat that'll be!. Can't wait. I'll keep you posted on my search...thanks again!

Anonymous said...

hi just thought i should add my comments on what was an excellent film. i thought your review was spot on and though this isn't a film which can be viewed leisurely, it is a film that one definitely needs to see. Aamir khan's portrayal of dil nawaz the ice candy man is jaw dropping. special mention of the scene in which he tells people the where abouts of nandita das which still gives me goose bumps and sends a shiver down my spine. i thought the entire cast especially rahul khanna were fantastic and it is indeed a pity that we dont see enough of him. i am a massive aamir khan fan and i think he is one of the most versatile actors around. but, and i know i am making a huge statement here, i think this was one of his finest performances. the ease at which he portrays the transformation his character goes through is indeed spell bounding. i also loved the music,dheemi dheemi sung by hariharan being my favourite.

theBollywoodFan said...

Hi Anonymous: Thanks for your comments. Yes, no leisurely viewing at all here, right?! Aamir was scary, no doubt. And his versatility, as you say, really was showcased quite well here.

Rahul Khanna is making a comeback of sorts to commercial cinema this year, be on the lookout for him.

Dheemi Dheemi by Hariharan was fantastic, agreed. The rest of the music was well done too. I also liked Yeh Jo Zindagi Hai. The background score, of which I didn't make much mention in the review, was also quite beautifully done.

Thank you for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Adab theBollywoodFan!

I enjoyed seeing your 'For Hope of Love' work and imagine in its full size would be even more impressive. Thanks for the write up on this film. I like my history in the form of historical fiction. I learned a lot from this film and it seems to be a fair view of the partition, but of course being someone who didn't live through the event, I can't personally comment. I did learn a lot from the film though. And bollyviewer, I will take your recommendations for Tamas and Garam Hawa, which sound great for the reason you say about not showing horrors. On a similar note of seeing horrors, I recently saw Chandni Bar, and though I really liked it, (Tabu & Atul Kulkarni were superb!) it was such a harsh depiction of the characters' lives. I think it went too far visually (scene with the young boy in jail for instance) that I was disturbed, and I'm not so sure how good it is to watch such imagery, for I believe that though it shouldn't be ignored, there's a fine line between re-telling a story and being re-horrified by it.

Mehta's Fire and Water are also very beautiful, but at times graphic, but less so that Earth. Water was so beautiful, and so sad, yet ultimately hopeful at the end. Ahh! Recall that scene at the end and the train and Seema Biswas and John Abraham and the little girl? Vah!

Thanks again for the review Nawab!

All the best,

ajnabi said...

I've heard so many good things about this movie but haven't been able to bring myself to watch it. Wow... your review is excellent.

theBollywoodFan said...

Adab Sita-ji: Thanks for your comments. 'For Love of Hope' has an interesting story behind it, which I'll hope to share some day.

I do believe there's quite a bit to learn from this film. Thought it provided a very good depiction of the tensions between the people of various communities, and the narcissism that guided them.

I haven't seen Chandni Bar yet (some day I'll take the plunge for Tabu) for the same reason you mention. Agree on Water and Fire. The scenes from Water you mentioned were spectacular, as was Lisa Ray in that (relatively) simple wardrobe throughout the film.

Hi Ajnabi: Glad you liked the review, thanks! Although I was 18 at the time of the film's release, I somehow managed to stay away until 2006. Much of it was deliberate. But I was missing out on some excellent performances, which made this one worth watching. It's not the easiest to digest, in which case you can always keep a finger on the fast-forward button, which you'll only need for some portions of the second half...if that helps :)


Unknown said...

This film is VERY special to me. I exist because of Partition - my father's family lived in Lahore shortly before moving to Karachi on their way to getting out to wherever they could. So watching this movie was kind of like seeing the stories of my Dad had told of his father's experiences made flesh and blood. Plus, this film carved a giant Nandita Das shaped hole in my heart, one that had never gone away to this day.
मैं नन्दिता का दास बनना चहता हूँ

theBollywoodFan said...

That must have been remarkable. As someone who's lived in and loved both Bombay and Karachi, I found it beautifully crafted as well. ROTFL at that 'das' comment, there is no way I wouldn't agree ;) Cheers.