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Review by Jerry White
Posted 14 January 2000

Written and Directed by Deepa Mehta 

Starring Nandita Das,
Kitu Gidwani, Aamir Khan,
Rahul Khanna, Kulbhushan Kharbanda,
Eric Peterson, Maaia Sethna,
Raghubir Yadav, and Arif Zakaria 

I find it odd that India has submitted Deepa Mehta's new film Earth as its entry for the Foreign Language film Oscar. It's understandable in one way; the film's director and producer are Indian citizens, and it was made partially with Indian money. There are two facts about the film, though, that bother me. The first is obvious: a good deal of the film is in English, so trying to secure a "Best Foreign Film" nomination doesn't make any more sense for Earth than it would for Trainspotting. The second issue, though, is less concrete. A big part of what makes Earth interesting is that it, like a great deal of contemporary cinema, seems to almost slip the bounds of national cinemas; it's a film that's not from or about India so much as it about and from a messy collection of nations whose boundaries are always shifting around and blurring (sometimes bleeding) into one another. This is a small but elite group of recent films; I'd place Earth alongside works like Wayne Wang's Chinese Box, Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book or Wong Kar-Wai's Days Of Being Wild. These are movies whose national identity is not only hard to pinpoint, but films for whom a sense of a complex world stuck between the fear and loathing of xenophobia and the giddy confusion of a borderless, cosmopolitan world is central. This complexity is at the very centre of Earth; what gives the film its power is the way that Meeta shows just how second nature a spirit of multi-nationalism was to the inhabitants of the subcontinent. Looking at Earth just as the century turns is an especially instructive experience.

What Mehta seems to be telling us is that contrary to popular (Western) belief, the world did not get smaller over the last 100 years. She makes it abundantly clear that for some people, the world became a whole lot more foreboding, that for every wall that got knocked down, plenty of new ones were thrown up to take their place. Overall, then, this is a very impressive film, occasionally falling into symbolic traps that it seems to set for itself but still creating a lush, visually rich portrait of a short time defined in equal part by radical promise and bloodshed.

The film opens in 1947 and centres around a prosperous family of Parsees living in Lahore (now part of Pakistan). The Parsees have always been small in number and for that and other reasons are generally thought of as neutral in the Hindu-Muslim-Sikh conflicts. Throughout the film, we see the tumultuous events of 1947, such as independence, partition, ethnic rioting, mass migration and the preparation for war, through the eyes of Lenny, an eight-year-old Parsee who has a close relationship with her Hindu nanny, Shantra. One of their regular haunts is a symbolically-loaded park, where a group of young men, some Hindu, some Muslim, some Sikh, all sit around and talk. As the political climate heats up, the conversations in the park become less genial, Lenny becomes more and more confused, and the who region slowly slips into a morass of violence and resentment.

The detail with which this conflict is presented is impressive; geopolitical manoeuvring is certainly central to the film, but equally important are the little rituals and hypocrisies that defined upper middle class life on 1940s India. The scenes where Lenny plays with her friends, lolls around with Shanta achieve a very tender lyricism that is tough to keep from turning into sentimentality when you're dealing with a little kid. One scene where Lenny, sitting in the back seat of a car, is accidentally driven into a small riot by her arguing parents, is especially notable for the way that Mehta covers a truly insane range of emotions with smoothness and depth. The power of this film, then, lies very much in its details, in the wholeness and density of the world it creates. Earth is very much about Lahore, and what it means to grow up and live there during a specific historical period. Compared to how totally the film is about Lahore, it's barely at all about what it means to be Indian or Pakistani. Nation is the ever-present topic of the narrative, but in terms of understanding the richly developed inner life of the characters, national considerations hardly every appear on the radar screen. This paradox is what give the film such life, such mystery, and what makes it seem so vibrant a part of the post-national cinema that we can see emerging over the last decade.

That said, Mehta occasionally goes astray with heavy-handed allegorical gestures. The above mentioned park is a minor example of this, although Mehta resists the urge to go overload these images with symbolic value. One scene where her metaphorical impulse gets the better of her, though, is when the neutral Parsee family hosts a dinner attended by a pompous, tuxedoed Briton, a Sikh, a Hindu and a Muslim, as the young, naive Lenny plays underneath the table. Guess what: the dinner chat soon turns to politics and an angry, violent dispute breaks out among the guests. I'm also not totally sure what to make of the closing sequence [read no further if you do not want the end spoiled], when Lenny is tricked into betraying Shanta, who is dragged from her house by a crazed band of Muslim rioters. Are we supposed to take from this that apolitical innocents often do more harm than they intend to? It's clear that Lenny, the child from a historically neutral ethnic group, is supposed to be symbolic of something (but what, exactly?), and the nastiness of this final betrayal that she is hoodwinked into makes her seem especially central to the madness and consequent loss of innocence that has engulfed the region. Again, two problems with this: I'm not crazy about the use of a you         ng girl as a symbol for the woes of the subcontinent, and I'm not sure how coherently this symbol is even developed (it's just sort of invoked but never explained, unlike the much-too-clear symbolism of the dinner party).

One aspect of the film that more than makes up for these shortcomings, though, is its look. Mehta's cinematographer Giles Nuttgens has done an excellent job of expressing the intensity of Lahore without going overboard on the in romanticism. Like the careful way that Mehta shows us the details of everyday life, the images in Earth are obsessively framed and sumptuously photographed. Earth has its problems, but none of them are enough to detract from the fact that this is a beautiful, heartfelt and heartbreaking film about the passing of a truly trans-national Asia.

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