Watching Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998) in 2017

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The conversation around the ways in which the current political climate in the United States has divided and pitted people against each other kept surfacing while I was watching Deepa Mehta’s film Earth. The film takes place in Lahore, India (now Pakistan), during the partition of India. Through the eyes of Lenny, a Parsi child, we are privy to the humanity that is devoured during the independence of India and its partition in 1947. Ayah Shanta, her Hindu nanny, sits in the park with Lenny, surrounded by a group of admirers; the potential suitors are Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu. Given the tension over the impending partition of India, religion and politics are a point of conversation within the group throughout, but as the film progresses, discourse becomes heated, and differences between the group members become points of division.

1947earth630One day, I am with a friend who happens to be ten years my junior. It is a week or so before Christmas and she is agonizing over the oncoming family festivities. It isn’t that she is overwhelmed with the holiday season in general, it is that her family is full of right-wingers who cannot seem to keep their opinions to themselves. She decides to spend the holidays alone, and tells them that she has made other plans. I get it. I do. I too have several outspoken family members whose political beliefs I do not share. But I don’t go out of my way to avoid these relatives, though I do admit to avoiding conversations about politics when I am with most of my family. When I was 25 years old, I too probably didn’t. I don’t think that I was ever as idealistic as some of the younger people that I know today, but I remember some arguments that ended with my just giving up and accepting the differences between us. Sometimes with hope that they will eventually come around. Other times knowing that they wouldn’t and accepting this. My friend also gives up, but there is a divide in her family. She dislikes them and decides not to engage. At all. I see these kinds of reactions a lot lately. Facebook posts about dropping friends who are on the other side are not uncommon, and are often met with supportive comments from others who have ‘had to do the same thing.’ I recall hearing Garrison Keillor talk about how politics have changed our culture (on Charlie Rose?). Back in the day you would share a meal with relatives and friends who all had different perspectives on politics, and they would argue them out over a meal, but could maintain a relationship of respect in spite of these differences. When he first started campaigning for politicians, democrats and republicans lived side by side. As time went on, the urban areas were becoming noticeably left-wing, while the suburbs/countryside had become right-wing. He found that over time, campaigning in the city wasn’t as necessary: everyone already shared the same opinion. It was as if at some point, people with opposing viewpoints stopped talking to each other.

hqdefaultEarth was released in 1998, when tensions were high between India and Pakistan; after a few quiet years, there were incidents at the Line Of Control that had escalated, resulting in nuclear tests on both sides of the LOC in 1998. While I have doubts that this film was made specifically with these events in mind, the continued conflicts reveal how the issues that lead to one of the greatest and bloodiest migrations in human history continues to impact the two nations today. The ‘ban Pak artists’ movement in Bollywood has been making headlines lately, even impacting films from big-name directors like Karan Johar. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) is rumored to have had scenes featuring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan cut because of the Uri Attack. On the other hand, Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) is a recent example of a compassionate and humanizing portrayal of people on both sides of the divide (this one from an Indian perspective), but such films only graze the surface of the complicated relationship and its history. Given Bollywood’s tendency to skirt around complicated political issues, it is understandable that a film like Earth had to be made outside of the Bollywood industry (Mehta is Canadian), but is impressive that it does target its audience (as is apparent by the use of the Hindi cinema formula and the very presence of superstar Aamir Khan, who portrays Dil Navas). 

In Earth, there are key events that mark turning points for certain characters. When Dil Navas, a Muslim, goes to meet his sisters who have arrived on a train from Guardaspir, he is confronted with a bloody massacre. The scene is heavy, and marks a significant change in the formerly jolly and carefree ‘ice candy man’. From this point forward, his love for Ayah evolves. A once an innocent and devoted longing takes the form of revenge fueled passion. After witnessing the murder of a Muslim man by a mob of Hindus in the streets from the safety of a rooftop with Ayah, Lenny, and Hassan, Dil begins to celebrate when a group of Muslim firefighters retaliates by alighting a Hindu building, and its occupants, afire. Ayah looks at him, disgusted, and a few moment later he responds,

“This is not only about Hindus and Muslims. It is about what is inside us. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs – we are all bastards, all animals. Like the lion in the zoo that Lenny-baby is so scared of. He just lies there, waiting for the cage to open. And when it does, then god help us all. Shanta, marry me. If you are with me, then the animal that’s within me will be controlled.”

Ayah nods, refusing his proposal. Sometime after this scene, Ayah and Hassan are making love in an old abandoned structure (ruins?), and Lenny appears watching from the window above. Her innocent curiosity has taken hold of her, and her eyes wander across the room to an adjacent window, where Dil is seen, also watching. In the safety of the ruins, a Muslim and a Hindu are reduced to their human state. Their animalistic desire is the other side of the coin that Dil mentioned when he asked Ayah to marry him, to tame the beast within. Through love, Hassan and Ayah are protected from becoming the beasts that the people outside have regressed to. As marked by the ruins, the relationship between Ayah and Hassan can only exist in the past, while the pair who are ultimately responsible for their demise wait outside. Dil’s betrayal is one of animalistic passion. It is a powerful statement; humans are animals at their very core, and they must balance their animalistic tendencies. Dil represents both sides of this coin: he is capable of the kind of blind love that Hassan and Ayah share, but without cultivation and validation, his passions turn. Lenny is a Parsi, descendants from Iran, a group which remained neutral throughout the partition. Her mother says early in the film that Parsis are supposed to be invisible, like sugar in milk. Lenny loves both Ayah and Dil, but her role in the film represents the indifference of her people when she betrays Ayah, revealing that true indifference is impossible.
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Earth is not about the political divide in the United States today – this particular moment in American history is not even comparable to the atrocities of the partition of India -but watching the division of friends and neighbors brought to mind the slow migration of like-minded groups of people who feel unsafe in the presence of people who have opposing viewpoints. Fear based mistrust of our neighbors inspired by the media and the powers that be. And, the internalization of religion, and politics, as identifying and intrinsic characteristics, when at our core we are all bastards and animals with a desire, no, a need, for compassion: to be loved and to give love. I can think of quite a few people who should watch this film (good thing it is free on youtube), perhaps you should too.

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