India is a strong example of a developing nation where, because of resentment and resistance to the social impact of economic change, fundamentalism has been strongly fed as entire cultural and religious groups have become marginalized. Patterns of resentment and resistance among these marginalized groups have led to a situation where, paradoxically, the national government is sustained by feelings and beliefs that are essentially anarchist in their view of government.
Deepa Mehta directed (Cracking) Earth, taken from Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, fifty years after the partition of India. Earth is extremely contemporaneous, as it explores several relevant and pressing themes: the way in which violence is internalized; the extraordinary power of maps (interior and psychological, particularly) – the way that they are etched not only on to lands, but to bodies as well; and the issues of partition and postcolonialism – understanding cultural divisions, framing politics and identities.
Earth celebrates its narrator’s eighth birthday at the same time as Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru triumphantly proclaims (by radio, as heard in the film) that “India will awake to light and freedom, at the stroke of the midnight hour.” Seen through the beautiful, and certainly innocent, eyes of young Lenny-baby, Earth begins by engaging us emotionally: Lenny is the baby in an affluent Parsee family, which meets in the local park every week to discuss love, relationships, the rapidly-approaching partition, and religion is incorporated as well.
The focal point (from a narrative and from a filmic point of view) of these discussions is young, beautiful Shanta – Lenny’s nanny. She is a Muslim, loved by both Hasan the Masseur and by the multifaceted Dil Navaz – also known as “Ice Candy Man” to Lenny. In many ways, Shanta’s body is the “earth” upon which most of the love-narrative is fought.
The film begins with several peaceful, beautiful images – such as the scene where Dil teaches Shanta to fly a kite on a beautiful afternoon: Lenny watches on with great admiration for her hero, Dil, as he woos Shanta with his kite-flying abilities from high atop his apartment in the Sikh section of town. But even such an innocent, pastoral scene as this one loaded with symbolism: on one level, it is very clear that – of the two women, Lenny and Shanta – young Lenny is clearly the only one truly smitten with Dil. The age gap undermines her love for him, but – more important – it foregrounds the religious gap between Dil and his “two women,” a gap that will grow but wider as the movie progresses.
On a much more significant level, Dil’s kite-flying is tinged with competition and violence, as the two women alert him to the fact that his kite may be cut off by other kites. They tease him lightly when they point this out, but for Dil – he is obfuscated by his desire to not be upstaged, and momentarily forgets his gentle female company as he aggressively cuts off the competing kites. This is a brief glimpse of the genuine violence that will soon spill over into the movie.
Earth takes pains to show the beauty of the pre-partition life (family scenes, trips to secluded locales, dinners among students and families), only to crudely destroy that peace in the second half of the film: this very cleverly depicts the tragic loss of the beauty. Earth becomes brutally serious when Dil awaits, late on Independence night, at the train station: when the train arrives from Gurdaspur district, Dil enters the train – only to find dozens upon dozens of brutally slaughtered Muslims; there is also mention of the Muslim women’s breasts being excised. This is only the beginning of the sectarian strife that – today – has truly yet to cease. As Sidhwa was to say, when referencing this scene in an interview about Earth, “Ghandi’s nonviolent revolution ended up costing the lives of one million Indians.” And later on, he remarks that this “was the beginning of the largest and most terrible exchange of population known to history – seven million Muslims and five million Hindus and Sikhs.”
Even today, India has witnessed a resurgent Hindu fundamentalism that threatens to undermine the secular state created at the time of independence in 1947. Although the Indian government has attempted to adopt a policy of strict neutrality between its Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim subjects, Earth takes great pains to show the horrific communal violence that frames the rawness of the nationalistic and religious fervor in postcolonial India.
Earth also demonstrates how difficult it truly is to testify to this kind of violence: how, indeed, does one document the unspeakable? After Dil has witnessed the devastating slaughter-scene on board the Amristar-Gurdaspur-Lahore train, dialogue begins to diminish in the movie, and is replaced by muted and horrified facial expressions, tears, screams, and anguish.
The only respite amidst the fires, the burnings, and the slaughters, is the brief love-scene between Hasan and Shanta, where they consummate their love for one another – planning to leave immediately for Amristar. But they are a 1940s Romeo and Juliet, doomed to failure as quickly as they have united: Dil has witnessed their lovemaking, and most likely slits Hasan’s throat soon after. Sadly, in the estranged idiom of the lovers can be read the tragedy’s proximity with this scene; Hasan’s murder lays siege to the legitimacy of a world which deprives men and women of boundless love as surely as it deprives the poor of their share in the world’s wealth, and as surely as it deprives the different cultural groups in India of a peaceful commerce with futurity.