Partition is probably the second-most bloody massacre in human history -- the first being the Holocaust.
Now, more than 50 years later, the scars still run deep. The present circumstances continue to serve as cruel reminders of the past. People still kill in the name of religion, nationalism and patriotism.
Deepa Mehta's 1947: Earth is another Partition saga. The second in her trilogy (Fire, Earth, Water) this film has, and will, run into controversy. It will surely be accused of being anti-Muslim, anti-Hindu and anti-Sikh, depending on one's political and religious allegiance.
The film, in reality, is neither. Based on Bapsi Sidhwa's novel Cracking India (or Ice Candy Man), Mehta's film encompasses only half the novel. It leaves out the nerve-racking depictions of violence, rape and plunder, as described by Sidhwa.
The novel has a vast canvas on which the author etches many characters from several communities and the fate they meet with in the end, mainly at the hands of each other.
Mehta, constrained to tell the story in around two hours, sifts through the book, amalgamates characters and combines different elements to make it cinematically viable.
Earth is the tale of Partition seen through the eyes of Lenny (Maaia Sethna), an eight-year-old girl afflicted by polio. She lives in Lahore with her parents (Arif Zakaria and Kitu Gidwani). Shanta, the ayah (Nandita Das), is her constant companion and her primary source of interaction with the world outside.
Shanta has many suitors, the masseur Hassan (Rahul Khanna), the ice-candy man Dil Nawaz (Aamir Khan), the zoo-keeper, the local money-lender, being some of them. It is the ayah who weaves this motley group together, men of various religions bound by her beauty.
But things are not what they seem. Beneath the veneer of gentility, lurks a darker side in each one of them. A side that becomes more and more visible as tension escalates with the news of impending Partition.
Suddenly, all equations change. Friends begin to mistrust each other, neighbours of one community start looking at another with suspicion and ill-concealed hatred. The Hindus and Sikhs leave Lahore -- now a part of Pakistan -- in search of new homes in India.
Lenny's family, however, is secure in the feeling that the Parsis will do what the Swiss do -- remain neutral. Shanta, meanwhile, gets closer to Hassan, despite constant overtures from Dil Nawaz.
On the eve of Independence Day, a train from Gurdaspur arrives in Lahore, with nothing but corpses inside. Among those butchered are Dil Nawaz's family, his sister's severed body bundled into gunny bags.
This traumatic incident scars Dil Nawaz's psyche. He discovers the beast in him. At the same time, he loses the ayah to Hassan, which is the final straw: he realises that without her love, he is nothing more than a primal creature.
All those who have read the novel may be disappointed by the film not covering the entire plot. One misses the innocence of Lenny's world -- which is an integral part of the novel -- in the film. But, even on its own, Earth manages to make a bold statement.
A R Rahman's score ranks among his best, second perhaps only to Roja. He certainly breaks new ground with Earth. The cinematography by Giles Nuttgens is excellent.
Aamir Khan has probably given the best performance of his life. It is hard to imagine another actor bringing alive the nuances of the ice-candy man the way he does -- the use of his eyes, the body language, the way he lights his cigarettes. He shocks with his facial expressions in the climax as also in the scene when he enters the train from Gurdaspur.
Rahul Khanna makes a neat debut as the shy and soft-spoken masseur who refuses to let the bloodshed around him cloud his beliefs. He is an actor to watch out for in the future.
Nandita Das is once again brilliant, as she was in Fire, portraying sensuality and fear with equal ease.
Mehta's Earth, in comparison to Fire, is a notch better. Make that two notches. This time she has an exceptional novel and an actor called Aamir Khan to help her.
One just wishes Mehta had shown some more violence as depicted in the novel. No one would have accused her of playing to the galleries, not her viewers, not those who have read Sidhwa and certainly not the millions whose lives have been changed by Partition. Except, perhaps, the Censor Board which objected to the love-making scene between Khanna and Das.
In the end, one hopes we learn a lesson from history. It's a time to heal.