1947: Earth, the second movie in Deepa Mehta’s trilogy, is a coming-of-age tale set in the middle of the India-Pakistan partition set in what was about to become Pakistan. It is based on the book Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa.
“Independence” is a word packed with the feeling of liberation and newness — but is perhaps a misnomer for the events of 1947. Earth shows some of the tragedy of the India-Pakistan partition through the eyes of a young girl with polio, Lenny, narrating the events of her past from adulthood. Lenny belongs to a Parsee family that insists on maintaining a neutral stance concerning the partition and independence. But Lenny herself interacts with a group of young adults of various faiths, including her Hindu ayah Shanta, a Muslim masseur Hassan, and ice candy man Dil Navaz, among other Hindu and Sikh members of their friend group.
Like Mehta’s other films, Earth centers around the young female lead as the primary perspective of the impact of social and political events. However, this also evolves into a commentary about the role of women as sites of these events — as though it’s here where the violence culminates and is epitomized. Lenny is also a child who tries to understand the realities around her as they change rapidly. As events become quickly violent she beings to engage in erratic behavior. And this behavior mirrors that of the disseminating society — she often throws tantrums, rips apart her dolls, or breaks plates as a way to express her unsettlement with the events of 1947 and how they affect the people with whom she spends her time.
Lenny’s family’s unwillingness to fully digest the violence of the partition, to remain “neutral” hits her hard — she cannot depend on her parents to make sense of what is occurring around her, as they insist on impartiality, nor can she fully understand the vulnerability of Shanta’s position as a Hindu woman in Lahore. So she’s left witnessing the violence and not knowing how to make sense of it, while forcibly having to abandon her childhood.
This characterization is an essential aspect of every story in Mehta’s trilogy, as she is an innocent separated from her surroundings. Lenny is, fundamentally, a victim of her society, rather than a formulating part of it, because it’s always the vulnerable that are marginally associated with society. And, when tragedy strikes, these individuals are the first to be affected but are quickly categorized as collateral damage. From the periphery of society, Lenny can only look in from out. So, despite the violence surrounding her, Lenny is innocent because she does not actively produce any of the violence. But, because of her vulnerability and her polio, Shanta becomes a vantage point for Lenny. Lenny spends time with Shanta and her courters, but while Shanta prefers Hassan over Dil Navaz, Lenny has a soft-spot for the latter, whom she affectionately calls “Ice Candy Man.”
Dil Navaz, the Ice Candy Man, is central to this story because he changes his loving, joyful character so drastically at the end of the film. His love for Shanta becomes the reason of his jealousy when he can’t acquire her. This is another key decision by Mehta and Sidhwa — while Lenny is the perspective of this violence, Shanta is the site of it. Shanta is the object of affection of two men, and when one can’t have her, he betrays her and meets her with violence. Both Lenny and Shanta are, in this way, the most vulnerable members of this society, while Dil Navaz becomes the most corrupted and the producer of violence in this society.
Earth doesn’t hold back on its critique of the British impact of 1947, particularly hinging on the loss of childhood joy, through Lenny, as a marker for the change that took place. The movie is a brutal depiction of the birth of Pakistan, and who died on the way to and from.
Mehta doesn’t pack the screenplay with anything extravagant, but the film soundtrack, composed by the brilliant A. R. Rahman, perfectly enunciates the moments in the film that feel heavy, such as a scene when Dil Navaz walks into a train compartment filled with corpses. This scene stays with you, because the introduction of this moment does not being with an image of dead bodies, nor does it start with a song. The initial reaction we acquire in this moment is, in fact, a distant scream by someone else who has witnessed the same thing in a different compartment.
But, Rahman also fills sound and music in the moments that are lighter, such as two lovers meeting in secret, among all this violence. Shanta and Hassan’s relationship, one between a Hindu and a Muslim, almost fools an optimistic audience into believing that through the two of them, some sort of minute reconciliation between the opposing religious groups can occur. This song almost seems out of place in a movie such as this one, because it’s extremely divorced from the reality of its sociopolitical surroundings. Because of their status as a mixed, low-income couple, Shanta and Hassan vow to run away. But before this is made possible, tragedy strikes. So the tumultuous experience of watching this movie is not just a visual one, but auditory, too.
For something that has been so often celebrated, Independence in India was in fact a fragmentation of a land and an arbitrary division by the British of one people based on arbitrary distinctions. The thing that is often missed when discussing partition, the thing that Earth does such a great job of exploring, is the fact that Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs are completely the same. All of these people were once part of the same country and then had to scramble to retain what they could. They all went to extreme extents of violence, and, ultimately, turned on each other, stripping away any remnants of joy or childhood from themselves. In the movie, Lenny is a neutral and young voyeur who narrates the events of Partition from the future as an adult woman, further removing the audience from 1947. And so, like Lenny’s childhood, it is a thing of the past but has etched itself into the makeup of India-Pakistan even presently.