The Discomforting Legacy of Deepa Mehta’s Earth

Bilal Qureshi

from Film Quarterly Summer 2017, Volume 70, Number 4

Film Quarterly Summer Podcast: Columnist Bilal Qureshi in conversation with filmmaker Deepa Mehta about her film Earth and the 70th Anniversary of India’s Partition.

In a time of relentless news and disruptions, one of this year’s defining milestones in world history may pass without much consideration. And cinema is partly to blame for its lack of adequate global notice.

This August marks the seventieth anniversary of the partition of India, the monumental decision at the end of British rule to divide a once unified region into two nations—Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. By the late 1940s, the sun had set on the British Empire and a hasty line was carved through India in the mayhem of decolonization. This arbitrary border tore through the villages and cities of Punjab and Bengal, spurring unimaginable spasms of massacre and rape and turning millions of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus into displaced refugees. South Asia was liberated and severed in the same moment. Today India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed rivals and a fifth of the world’s population lives at the razor’s edge of perpetual war.

For an event of such magnitude and intrinsic human drama, it is shocking how few films have been made on the legacy of Partition for a global audience. There is an extraordinary body of literature about the event, true, but for a region where cinema reigns supreme, the dearth of films is a glaring absence. The one exception is a nineteen-year-old film by Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta, Earth (1998). Throughout her career, Deepa Mehta has infused the energy of mainstream Indian cinema with fierce political consciousness.

Since making Earth almost twenty years ago, Deepa Mehta has seen her stature grow to include film festival premieres, an Oscar nomination, and a platform as one of the rare women auteurs on the international stage. She has lived in Canada since the 1970s, but her most celebrated films are not about immigrant displacement or hyphenated identity. Rather, she has always told Indian stories. From the groundbreaking story of a lesbian relationship between two housewives in suffocating arranged marriages (Fire, 1996) to the forced exile of widows in orthodox Hindu scripture (Water, 2005), she has confronted uncomfortable social realities in Indian society. Although she has been labeled an anti-national, had sets burned, and had cinemas attacked by the religious right for insulting traditional values, she’s taken the challenges in stride and continues making films.

Her latest film, Anatomy of Violence (2016), is an experimental study of sexual violence inspired by the grotesque gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in 2012.1 Instead of making a traditional feature film or a documentary based on the case, Mehta wanted to use fiction to understand the men who perpetrated the attack.2 To portray what drives India’s epidemic of sexual violence, she invited her cast to workshop and improvise the imagined backstories of the attackers, crafting painful portraits of broken families and combustible rage. Those individual narratives appear onscreen as fictionalized cinéma vérité, filmed with handheld cameras in uncomfortable proximity. In a radical and deliberate new form, Mehta offers yet another damning portrait of her own society of origin.

For the past year, I’ve been living in India’s sprawling capital. In the months leading up to the seventieth anniversary of Partition in summer of 2017, there have been commemorative exhibitions, conferences, and high-minded editorials. Today India and Pakistan live in a perpetual state of hostility. The absence of travel or sustained collaborations means the trauma of Partition has been replaced with one-dimensional nationalist narratives in both Indian and Pakistani popular culture. Filmmakers have simply followed suit. There have been several mediocre Bollywood efforts at dramatizing the events of 1947, but screenplays with nuance have never been the industry’s strength. Partition is a complicated political story that doesn’t lend itself to the confines of the family soap operas and gilded neoliberal fantasia that define contemporary Bollywood.

Even broadly speaking, international films set in India have their own limitations, at the level of aesthetics if not politics. Richard Attenborough’s classic biopic Gandhi (1982) may have won an Oscar for Best Picture, but it falls short in representing the complexity of the man and the moment, opting for handsome hagiography. Gurinder Chadha’s new film, Viceroy’s House (2017), tells the Partition story as an extension of Downton Abbey, an “upstairs downstairs” treatment focusing on the colonial administration. Other international films set in India such as the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series (John Madden, 2011/2015) or even Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) tend to feature an assortment of billowing fabrics, the emotive plucking of sitar strings, flowers and arched gateways, as if transforming India into a palatable and commercial cinematic feast. These filmmakers are not making Bollywood musicals in supersaturated Technicolor, but in their own efforts to meet the assumed Western gaze, there can be a tendency toward amplifying the sensuality and exoticism of the East. In stark contrast, Deepa Mehta’s trilogy of films—Fire, Earth, and Water—are brittle and difficult to digest. She uses her cinema to explore the darkness behind the color, digging into the rigid traditions and violent orthodoxy of Indian society. She deliberately shatters the region’s self-image and lazy exoticism onscreen. It is often not a pretty sight.

I first saw Earth in 1999 as a high school student growing up in Richmond, Virginia. It was screened in a small auditorium at the University of Richmond as part of the school’s annual international film festival. There are seminal works in every cinephile’s adolescence that shape tastes, emotions, and, if fortunate, even politics. My paternal grandfather was a Partition survivor. His sisters were killed on a train carrying refugees from India to the newly formed nation of Pakistan. I had grown up hearing his story in passing, but Deepa Mehta’s Earth opened my eyes—and more importantly, it opened borders. After the screening, I sat with my mother in the auditorium in silence. She had grown up in post-Partition Lahore, and I could sense in her mood that she had seen something that resonated with her in a profoundly personal way. In contrast to the escapism of the 1990s wave of glossy Bollywood musicals about diaspora communities, Deepa Mehta’s film was a haunting testament to a wound both Pakistanis and Indians share, even if they have never seen it onscreen.


Shanta (Nandita Das) in Earth.

Living in India in this anniversary year, I recently watched Earth for the first time in fifteen years. In one hundred luminous minutes, Mehta captures the scale of India’s division with nuance, cinematic eloquence, and emotional depth. The film is an historical drama that circumvents its staid genre by shifting the focus away from leaders and rallies to a small group of friends ripped apart by politics. It is an intimate piece that ruptures and expands in scale as history intervenes. Earth feels both timeless and timely. Since its first screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, it has aged into a new wisdom and relevance.

Deepa Mehta was recently in Delhi to screen her new film, Anatomy of Violence, which she decided to make in order to explore a culture of violence she sees accelerating across the urbanizing city she once called home. Planned as a meeting to discuss her new film and her work in general, we end up discussing the state of cinema and of the world in her family’s Delhi home on the very day that Donald Trump announces his ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries to America. Airports have been transformed into protest zones. The news is weighing on Deepa Mehta’s mind; wearing her professorial glasses, she sinks into a reading chair, exhausted by the day’s headlines.

Our conversation broadens to the state of world affairs and the rise of demagogues like Donald Trump and India’s own right-wing, avowedly Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She pauses and takes a deep breath. She says she’s alarmed by the global rise of right-wing nationalism. But in India, filmmakers and critical perspectives are being policed and silenced with new brutality. In 2000, Deepa Mehta famously had to cancel the shooting of Water in Varanasi after Hindu nationalists attacked her sets. She eventually filmed the project in secret in Sri Lanka. More than any filmmaker from South Asia, she knows the brunt of censorship and moral policing that awaits transgressing artists.


Shanta (Das) and her Muslim admirers, Dil (Aamir Kahn) and Hassan (Rahul Khanna), in Earth.

As the conversation turns to the upcoming anniversary of Partition, I ask her about the legacy of Earth. Her eyes light up and she tells me it remains her favorite film for very personal reasons. Like many Punjabis of her generation, Deepa Mehta is a daughter of Partition. She grew up in Amritsar next to the militarized border with Pakistan. “Even when I was growing up in Amritsar, we used to go every weekend to Lahore, so I just grew up around people who talked about it incessantly and felt it was one of the most horrific sectarian wars they knew of.” Mehta recalls that she made the film to explore the breaking apart of a multicultural society and to understand what moves neighbors and friends to turn against one another. “A driving force in the stories I want to tell is definitely curiosity. I was intrigued by sectarian war. I’m appalled by it. I was immensely curious about how it affects the everywoman and everyman.”

The late afternoon sun is casting shadows on Mehta’s long gray hair, as she looks out into the distance at the dome of one of Delhi’s most iconic Mughal tombs, where parts of Earth were filmed.

Earth remains one of my favorite films that I have made. It has something to do with nostalgia. I mean, I grew up in Delhi and I’m sitting here twenty years later and I’m looking outside and it’s Humayun’s Tomb that I see, and I have flashes of what it was like and [of] scenes that we shot that were quintessentially Old Delhi. And Humayun’s Tomb and Lodi Gardens. But it’s a different Delhi now. The monuments remain the same and I think that’s what really worries me. They’ve been there five hundred years and they remain the same, but the ethos around them is changing so rapidly. I feel like perhaps we’re in the middle of another upheaval or division and that makes me uncomfortable.

She says the majoritarian mood in India today has propelled the divisions between Hindus and Muslims back into the mainstream. Some journalists say the current government has embarked on a project to marginalize the country’s Muslim history and syncretic identity. Earth features a poignant relationship between Hindu and Muslim characters. Theirs is one of the many relationships ripped apart by the communal violence unleashed by Partition. Mehta says it would now be impossible to have those love scenes approved by India’s notoriously conservative and politicized censor board:

I think it would be absolutely impossible to make Earth today. I don’t think we’d get a big movie star to do it. But more than that, just the scale of it. And people are so vigilant about protecting anything that’s Hindu. Even if we could shoot, it would never get through the censor board today. Not a chance in hell. I don’t think it will be about the politics, it will be about a love scene.

But love scenes that cross India’s rigid love lines are always deeply political, and it is precisely those transgressive scenes of intimacy in Earth that give Metha’s film so much power. The censor board would have a point.

Fortunately, nineteen years ago in an age before social media firestorms, Deepa Mehta was able to make Earth on her own terms, drawing on a deeply personal need to understand what had pushed neighbors and friends to turn against one another. Mehta says for years she had been thinking about how to bring Partition to the screen in a way that was intimate and fair. She found her answer on a routine browsing trip through her favorite bookstore in Seattle when she stumbled on Ice Candy Man, the acclaimed novel by Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa based on the author’s own experience as a child of Lahore in 1947. It is a harrowing story of losing one’s innocence and watching one’s entire world fall apart. Mehta finished the book in a matter of days and immediately reached out to the writer to purchase the film rights.

The central character of the novel is a young girl, Lenny, a privileged daughter of a Parsi family, doted upon by a nanny and a staff of servants whose backgrounds stand in for India’s many communities. The fact that Lenny is neither Hindu nor Muslim freed the narrative from an easy and divisive communal dichotomy. Raised in a utopian multicultural home, visiting the park with her Hindu nanny and her Muslim admirers, Lenny is forced to watch her world shattered and destroyed when Partition arrives. What attracted Deepa Mehta was the novel’s point of view: “I felt that through Lenny’s eyes we experienced the innocence of childhood. The Parsis didn’t take the side of the Hindus or the Muslims. I felt it was really balanced. That really appealed to me.”

In Mehta’s film, Hindus ravage Muslims, Muslims kill Hindus, a Hindu woman falls in love with a Muslim, and Muslims hide Sikhs from murderous mobs in Lahore’s back alleys. The violence and the acts of kindness transcend religious categories as they did in reality and that approach gives the film’s screenplay an important balance. Mehta says she knew she had succeeded when she was charged with bias from all sides: “There were a lot of Hindus who said to me, ‘Why have you made a film that’s so pro-Muslim?’ There were Muslim friends who said it was too pro-Hindu. I think it’s actually extremely fair because it’s the point of view of Lenny.”

Beyond its political nuances, Earth is also one of the most beautifully made contemporary Indian films. It features original music and songs by Oscar-winning composer A. R. Rahman, with whom Mehta worked, along with lyricist Javed Akhtar, to compose a series of poems in Urdu and Hindi to propel the narrative with verses on faith, identity, and the mindlessness of war. The film’s cast includes two of India’s best actors—Bollywood heartthrob Aamir Khan and art-house darling Nandita Das who had risen to prominence through Mehta’s earlier film Fire.

Since it would have been impossible to bring the mostly Indian cast to the Pakistani city of Lahore to shoot the film, Mehta and her crew recreated the city in Delhi’s historic neighborhoods. The city’s medieval Muslim center and its remaining British bungalows are mirror images of pre-Partition Lahore, and with strategically placed period details and furnishings, a lost era came to life onscreen. Mehta says the film’s color palette was also instrumental to its sense of authenticity:

Whenever I finish writing a script, it’s also about how it smells. I usually write at my kitchen table and the screenplay becomes a very organic and palpable entity. This all sounds stupid and fanciful. I finish writing a script and I think, my god, what colors do I see? With Earth, I saw terra-cotta, I saw blood, I saw red—and I saw Lenny’s green, the desire for growth. I told my director of photography and my production designer that I did not want to see blue in the film at all. I didn’t want anything that was cold. It had to be like a throbbing wound.

When the conversation returns to this year’s seventieth anniversary of Partition, I ask Deepa Mehta if she has been thinking about this milestone in her own life.

I think anniversaries like this are extremely important. Not the nostalgia for when we were together, but the horrors of how many millions were displaced and how unnecessary it was. I don’t think we should ever forget that. If it takes something as airy-fairy as an anniversary, it’s imperative. It’s like asking if, can we forget about the Holocaust? Never. We learn through history and we must.

To this day historians and political scientists are unearthing evidence to show how deeply and irrevocably the hasty division of British India shaped the political and cultural future of more than a fifth of the world’s population. Under the surface of this year’s commemorations, the trauma of division still haunts Indian and Pakistani society. Mehta sees it as a cautionary tale for every society as it flirts with the language of us-versus-them and exclusion. “Is it cyclical that we all go nuts and kill and discriminate at random? I’m very nervous about the way the world is at the moment.… Earth has a resonance today it didn’t have even three years ago.”

Amid the rising tide of nationalism and unrest, I ask Deepa Mehta if she personally finds solace or comfort in her Earth. She counters:

I think watching Earth to a certain degree provides discomfort, which is excellent because we cannot be comfortable. There’s a lovely quote in the film that Aamir Khan’s character Ice Candy Man says about the animal within us. We all live with the animal. And the point of living is to actually make sure that the animal remains caged. If something like [Earth] reminds us that we cannot afford to unleash the negative aspect of ourselves as human beings, then that’s a good thing.

Mehta tells me that, to this day, she is still approached by audiences at screenings and lectures that wish to reminisce and thank her for making Earth. It is neither her most commercially successful nor her best-known film, but it seems to have an enduring sense of relevance and power. “I don’t think films and books change the world. I think if you’re lucky you start some kind of dialogue. A dialogue did begin with Earth, and perhaps it’ll start again now.”


A riot scene in Earth.

Living in India as a Pakistani-American over the past two years has brought me into many dialogues. Most have been uncomfortable, if not downright depressing. It is unfortunate to share the news that resentments on both sides have hardened with time. Artists with the ambition to work across that divide have been marginalized and silenced. Visa regimes make it impossible to even know the other, and politicians have ensured that hatred is the overriding narrative. The diaspora remains one of the only spaces where Indians and Pakistanis can even meet to reflect on the lines of 1947. It makes Deepa Mehta’s accomplishment—an Indian film based on a Pakistani novel, a Lahore story filmed in Delhi—even more inspiring.

Rediscovering Earth in this anniversary year has been a gift. Mehta’s film feels like a period piece on two fronts: a re-creation of the multicultural South Asia that preceded Partition, but also a relic of the late 1990s, when a less jingoistic moment allowed a film like Earth to be filmed and distributed. As mentioned, it was not a commercial success and it is not one of Mehta’s best-known works. The cast, the filmmaker, and the writers have all moved on. But in this seventieth anniversary year, it is important to recognize that Deepa Mehta has made the great missing film of Partition for all times.

Header Image: Deepa Mehta photographed in her family home in Delhi by Bilal Qureshi.

1. Niharika Mandhana and Anjani Trivedi, “Indians Outraged over Rape on Moving Bus in New Delhi,” New York Times, India Ink blog, December 18, 2012