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)...
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!)...to 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)