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Throwback Thursday Film Review: Earth by Laura Winton

I am a graduate student in the English department and as such, I occasionally watch movies for class. (Don’t you wish you were an English major now?) So since I am watching movies anyway for my class, entitled Literature and Place: Pakistani Women’s Narratives of Belonging, I thought I would also do some movie reviews for the Edge of some of those films, as well as some reviews to remind you or tell you about older, usually Indie and international films, that you might have missed out on and would want to rent or watch on Amazon or Hulu or Netflix or whatever your movie drug of choice may be these days. I will likely do these about twice a month and in keeping up with Facebook, I have decided to call this column Throwback Thursdays.

So for this Throwback Thursday, I watched Earth, a film by Deepa Mehta, a director from India, that is part of a trilogy of films about India and Pakistan: Fire, made in 1996, Earth, 1998, and Water, 2005. Earth, is subtitled 1947, the year India and Pakistan declared independence from Great Britain, and is about the partition of India into those two nations. It is also based on the book Cracking India, by Bapsi Sidhwa.
The debate is as old as films themselves, which is about 150 or so years. Is the movie, or can the movie ever be, as good as the book? Of course, movies are a different medium able to do different things well. Having read the book (at least half of it) before watching the movie, there is a lot of back story to the characters and their life situations that I missed having in the film. The film is, indeed, poorer in some respects for not having many of those details. There are many characters in Cracking India that are not present in the movie, as well as those whose motivations are not as fully explained in the movie as in the book. The book is 250 pages. The average movie script, including scene directions as well as dialogue runs approximately 120 pages, so there is a great deal that by necessity, must be left out.
Ok, so blah blah English major, what is the movie actually about? Well, it tells the story of people who live in Lahore, a Muslim-majority city, just before and during independence from Britain and the partition of India into independent India and Pakistan.
It tells the story of a little girl, Lenny, a Parsee girl, who has polio and now walks with braces. The Parsees are one of the minority religions in India and Pakistan and so have a level of neutrality when the violence between Hindus and Muslims break out. The Parsees, in fact, fare much better than the Sikhs, who also get caught up in the violence.
Lenny’s is one of the backstories that I would have liked to have seen more of in the film. Not a lot more necessarily, but five or so choice minutes would have made a big difference in knowing a little more about her character, as we do in the book. The other character that the movie centers around is her Ayah, or nanny, named Shanta. Shanta is a very beautiful young Hindu woman with many suitors who gather around her frequently. They are Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu. So we get a sense in the first part of the film that people’s religion doesn’t really affect how they interact with each other. Lenny’s family also has dinner parties with people of various religions and nationalities and while there are disputes and antagonisms, they are usually settled or set aside with humor, even if it is sometimes what we would call passive-aggressive humor.
Because we see much of this through Lenny’s 8 year-old character, many of the other people are known by what they do or by their relationship to Lenny. So among Shanta’s would-be suitors are Zookeeper man, Ice Candy Man, and Masseur. Apparently the book was originally supposed to be titled Ice Candy Man, since he plays such as important part in the book. He is a little bit of a grifter. In addition to selling his “Ice Cream Candy,” he also sometimes cons British women into paying him to let parrots whom he threatens to kill, go free, and he is known to have some “religious visions” wherein he tells people what they want to hear, thanks to a direct telephone line to Allah. Think of most Christian televangelists, only funnier. He and the Masseur, are the two primary rivals for Shanta’s attention.
The friendship and co-mingling between people of different religions comes crashing down as rumors of partition loom just before independence. While this is about 1/3 of the way into the book, this is where we pick up the story in the movie. Right away, there are discussions about what is going to happen to India, which was to be called Hindustan. As the movie goes on, everyone becomes more and more sectarian. Lines are starting to be drawn and with those lines, comes violence. Deep, severe violence. Mehta’s films are not light entertainment. There is no easy ending, nor does she pull any punches showing the scenes of violence. This is where movies are often more powerful than books. Every scene of violence in Earth is present in Cracking India, but of course, to see someone who is about to be drawn and quartered, to see Hindu areas of town get burned and ransacked, and to see an entire train full of Muslim refugees arrive with not a single living passenger on board, is much more affecting that to simply read about it.
What happens to Masseur, Ice Candy Man, Shanta and Lenny? I will leave it to you to see the movie Earth, and I also encourage you all to read the book, Cracking India, especially since it is in the endings that the book and the movie diverge most wildly. The film ends at a much sooner point than the book does, leaving you with a very different interpretation of both events and characters. This is where the movie version doesn’t merely leave things out that were in the book, but is in a way, almost a different story altogether.

Coming soon, I will have reviews of Silent Water (Khamosh Pani), upon which I have to write a paper anyway, as well as Fire and Water, the other two films in Deepa Mehta’s trilogy, which I am not assigned to watch, but will anyway, just for you all, as well as non-Indian/Pakistani movie, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.

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