Partition. For millions of Indians, the word is weighted with horror and hellish memories.

Partition is India's legacy of shame, a wound that never heals, an event so scarring that it will never truly be expurgated until every Hindu and Muslim who lived through it is no longer alive.

In 1947, northern India was abruptly and arbitrarily carved up by its departing British rulers to create the new Muslim state of Pakistan. The result was chaos--a massive crisscrossing exodus of Hindus fleeing south and Muslims north, of homes and friendships broken forever, of atrocity avenging atrocity. When it was over, in a matter of months, more than a million people had died and another 12 million had been uprooted.

For years, partition has been a semi-taboo subject here. The religious tensions that drove it are too easily revived, the memories too painful, the relationship between India and Pakistan too fragile.

This past spring the animosities between the two countries were rekindled with the outbreak of a 10-week border conflict in the remote Kargil mountains of Kashmir. More than 500 Indian troops died in the fighting, as well as an uncounted number of Pakistanis and their insurgent allies.

With nationalistic feelings reaching a fever pitch, some Hindus have voiced doubts about the patriotism of Indian Muslims. There were rumblings of ugly, Partition-era sentiments like: "Why don't they all just go to Pakistan?"

Although hundreds of academic tomes and polemical treatises have explored the effects of Partition, most popular writers and artists have either shied away from the topic or cloaked it in safe, autobiographical or fictional treatment. "Train to Pakistan," a short but searing 1956 novel by Khushwant Singh, was the single major literary work on Partition for a full quarter-century.

Only a handful of notable works on the subject have appeared since then. One was Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children," a picaresque and sardonic pinioning of the times published in 1980. Another was a 1988 novel called "Cracking India," by Bapsi Sidhwa, the story of a young Parsee girl in Lahore who witnesses the impact of Partition on her Hindu nanny and Muslim friends.

"Partition was the defining moment in our contemporary history, but for some reason it has not defined the Indian imagination the way the Holocaust has in Europe," said S. Prasannarajan, a literary critic for the Indian Express newspaper. "It is part of our legacy, but the younger generation doesn't remember it, the older generation isn't reconciled to it, and now all this hate has been manufactured again by Kargil."

In the middle of this tense period, a film titled "1947" was released in India last month. Based on Sidhwa's novel, it is a tale of love, betrayal and unspeakable acts, with Partition as both backdrop and driving force.

Released recently under the title "Earth" in the United States, it is the second film in a taboo-breaking trilogy by Deepa Mehta. Her first film, "Fire," which dealt with lesbianism, provoked riots in Bombay two years ago. A third, to be called "Water" and set on the sacred Ganges River, will explore religion in India.

To American audiences, "1947" offers a palatable, even entertaining glimpse of a grim chapter of history about which most Westerners know little. It sneaks in the violence between scenes of romantic picnics, restaurant debates and the captivating, crippled 9-year-old girl through whose eyes the story is told. To European audiences, the ominous scenes of trains chugging into dark stations and refugees herded like cattle, accompanied by heavy and haunting music, will instantly evoke images of Nazism and the Holocaust.

Moreover, in a few deft scenes, Mehta manages to introduce foreign audiences to India's mid-century cast of characters--British colonials, Sikhs, Muslims, Parsees (Zoroastrians) and Hindus--and to their distinct, equally tragic roles in Partition.

There is nothing subtle about "1947" except the film's superb lighting, which crackles with fire, throws ominous shadows and caresses the textures of an earlier time. The little Parsee girl witnesses a man torn limb from limb by a frenzied mob, then goes home and does the same thing to her favorite doll. A pudgy, innocent adolescent is married off to a hideous old stranger. A Muslim man waiting for his sister's train leaps on board to find bloody corpses sprawled in a heap. The pretty Hindu nanny agrees to marry a suitor of the other faith and dreams of their wedding day, only to be dragged off to an unthinkable fate by a crowd of agitated Muslims.

But the scene that has evoked the most empathy from audiences here is a small moment of private pain and anguish, one that must have been repeated tens of thousands of times in homes across northern India as Partition loomed. A middle-aged Sikh man calls on a neighbor to say that he is leaving his beloved city of Lahore, about to become part of Pakistan, and seek refuge in a strange part of India. By the end of his short, grief-stricken speech, the dignified man is in tears--and so is half the theater.

"It is our reality. What can we do? We just have to absorb it," says a middle-aged Sikh man, slumped silently in his seat in an affluent Delhi theater as the movie ends.

"I was only 7, but I remember everything," says another well-dressed filmgoer. "My father buying a gun, my mother crying, the servants running away, the mates I never saw again. How can you ever forget? Or forgive?"

Perhaps "1947," by humanizing the horrors inflicted by India's two major religious groups on each other, can help Indian audiences come to terms with Partition and even rise above it. In the last scene, in which a jilted suitor betrays his beloved to the ravages of a jeering mob, the answers to India's anguished questions of moral choice and religious identity seem suddenly, sickeningly, clear.

CAPTION: In Meerut, India, a poster advertises the film "1947."