The best artists don't run from conflict and pain; they turn it into what you might call usable goods. What are the usable goods of art? They're insight, and knowledge, and a better understanding of life and death. We pride ourselves that there hasn't been a world war in half a century, while all over the globe there are deaths in the millions from ethnic and racial and religious hatreds. Ireland. Indonesia. Rwanda. Yugoslavia. Chechnya. The list gets longer and longer.
Today, this week, this year, maybe for the next millenium, there is a boiling pot fed by India and Pakistan, over the partition of Kashmir/Jammu, and by no coincidence the remarkable Canadian/Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta has given us her film "Earth," based on the novel "Cracking India" by Bapsi Sidhwa, a film about the moment, in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was split in two in order to separate the Muslims and the Hindus.
The film is set in the city of Lahore, which is about to be moved from India to Pakistan under the agreement, but the film is not a documentary. Instead, in novelistic style, it gives us the people who themselves will be torn asunder. A group of young men and one woman, friends, Hindu, Muslim, Parsee, Sikh, meet in the park to chat each day. The woman, Shanta, played by the sensuously beautiful actress Nandita Das, is the ayah or nanny to a little girl from a wealthy Parsee family in the city. And much of the film's action is seen through the eyes of the girl.
As partition nears, the friends' talk turns more and more political, and we begin to see that the facade of good fellowship and ecumenical tolerance is starting to crumble. These young people, who have known only a congenial life, find themselves spouting fearful, racist insults. Two of the men vie for Shanta, and she comes to love one of them, triggering a disastrous act of revenge by the other.
If the film were only to serve as a reminder of the fanatical hatred that so many religions inspire, it would still be valuable. But it's much more than that. The people in it are well drawn in Mehta's script, and her direction is calm and understated in the way it merely observes everything from love and beauty to fire and death. And I must say a word about the cinematography, which saturates each shot with the earth tones of the title, a rich and warm sandy brown that seems to suffuse all of life in Lahore. Even the night shots are lit with a softness and a warmth that makes us seem to feel the light breezes, no matter that horrors are taking place.
Those who know the history of the partition will find the early scenes slow going, as the characters rehearse the story of how England spent centuries trying to make India over in its own image, only to decide on a moment's notice to abandon the country to those long-suppressed hatreds. Without doubt history will assign great blame to those responsible. "Earth" is the moving and beautiful and terrifying story of what happened to those who paid the price.