In "Earth," there is no wind, but plenty of fire, the fire of passion, the fire of hate and the fire of slaughter. The film, which opens today at Fairfax City's new art house, the Cinema Arts, is set before and during the bloody 1947 partition of the British Raj's empire into Pakistan and India, during which a million people died in rioting and several million more were uprooted to move behind borders established by their white ruler.
So though it has few Englishmen in it, the movie is really about the violent residue of colonialism. It makes the point that when white guys in palaces draw arbitrary lines on a map, people of color usually die in large numbers.
Yet Deepa Mehta's film isn't so much a document of embitterment as a document of melancholy. Taking the form of a symbolic memoir, it looks back on that time and place not so much with anger and hatred but with a sense that things could have worked out so much better if only everybody had tried a little bit.
In voice-over, the grown-up and infinitely saddened Lenny recalls her childhood in Lahore, Pakistan. She was a Parsee, that is, an aristocrat, born to privilege and wealth but aware that she stood somewhere outside the oppositional cultures--Muslim, Hindu and Sikh--that boiled toward detonation as the English rule waned. Her mother is nice but somewhat inept; her true mother and friend is her nanny, the beautiful young Shanta (Nandita Das), a Hindu girl. Each day, Shanta takes the young Lenny (beautifully played by Maia Sethna) to the park, where, with her beauty and wit, she holds court among a circle of suitors, including a Muslim, a Sikh and a Hindu.
The symbolic undergirding is obvious. Shanta, with her beauty, her possibility, her passion, her charisma, is India herself. Her three suitors are the three cultures. Initially, they are content to sit at her feet and worship her dutifully; they are willing, in fact, to share her in some way, each maintaining his respect for the other two and sublimating his hatred out of love.
But as independence nears, the tensions exacerbate and the contest for her attentions sharpens toward ultimate violence. Synopsized thus, it sounds, I realize, more like a pictogram than a drama. Needless to say, the movie is driven home by brilliant performances, especially young Sethna's, as the witness upon whom all this is imprinted so tragically.
The film is also technically sophisticated, as it hails from one of the most evolved film industries in the world. In the end, that may be less of an advantage than it seems, for so proficient has the Indian film industry become that "Earth's" flaw is its commercial beauty. It's a gorgeous film, possibly too polished in its sheen and grimeless evocation of a tragedy.
But it's still powerful and moving.
Earth (95 minutes, at the Cinema Arts) is not rated but contains scenes of old-style, Hollywood-type violence.
CAPTION: In "Earth," Lenny is beautifully played by Maia Sethna.