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[whitespace] Grounded Dream

Deepa Mehta's 'Earth' sets a friendship against the backdrop of India's partition

By Heather Zimmerman

ITS CINEMATOGRAPHY and music alone are enough to recommend Earth simply as incredible eye and ear candy, but director Deepa Mehta uses this striking visual and aural experience to amplify the nightmarish consequences of India's partition in the late '40s, an event that brought about religious wars that continue today. Based on Bapsi Sidhwa's semi-autobiographical novel, Cracking India, the film is a drama set in 1947 India, as the end of British rule divides the country into two religiously segregated nations: the primarily Hindu India and the predominantly Muslim Pakistan, resulting in escalating violence between the religions. Living in what soon will become Pakistan, the mischievous 8-year-old Lenny (Maia Sethna) is the daughter of a wealthy Parsee family that maintains total neutrality in the increasingly acrimonious religious climate.

Although Mehta's vision of pre-partition India is colorfully idyllic, she creates a subtle mood in the happiest of scenes that promises the serenity won't last. Even Lenny's rigidly neutral parents seem a little untrustworthy at first with a westernized stiffness--a Britishness?--that contrasts so obviously with the laid-back ways of Lenny's kindly nanny, Shanta (Nandita Das), a Hindu. Lenny accompanies the beautiful Shanta on daily visits to the park, to visit with Shanta's admirers, a group of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim men who, initially, are proud of agreeing to disagree for the sake of friendship--and for Shanta's affections. When the borders are drawn between India and Pakistan, disagreements among the friends quickly become threats, but interestingly, the greatest rift grows between two Muslim friends, Masseur (Rahul Khanna) and Ice Candy Man (Aamir Khan), because of their rivalry for Shanta. Khan's Ice Candy Man is quietly tortured, obviously filled with self-hatred as he struggles with allegiances; he passionately loves a Hindu woman, but has witnessed a gruesome Hindu massacre of Muslims, his sisters among them.

Das' sunny, likable Shanta has a vulnerability that almost rivals Lenny's innocence, but the character never seems naive. Although Lenny is the narrator and ostensibly the protagonist of Earth, Shanta is much more the emotional center of the tale; in fact, her willingness to embrace friends of all beliefs seems to offer something close to a character that represents Mehta's vision of India itself. And in the end, Shanta's nebulous fate reflects the still cloudy future of peace between India and Pakistan. Mehta never seems to take sides, instead portraying religious fanaticism of any kind--and the colonization that initally created the climate for it in India--as the true tragedy.

Earth (Unrated; 104 min.), written and directed by Deepa Mehta, photographed by Giles Nuttgens and starring Aamir Khan, Nandita Das and Rahul Khanna, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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