It's 1947 and the borderlines between India and Pakistan are being drawn. A young girl bears witnesses to tragedy as her ayah is caught between the love of two men and the rising tide of political and religious violence.
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The movie opens in Lahore of 1947 before India and Pakistan became independent. It is a cosmopolitan city, depicted by the coterie of working class friends who are from different religions. The rest of the movie chronicles the fate of this group and the maddening religious that sweeps even this city as the partition of the two countries is decided and Lahore is given to Pakistan. Written by
Neel V Kumar <email@example.com>
EARTH will seem familiar to anyone who has ever seen a historical epic. Its tale of political and national disjunction and horror is filtered through a precariously neutral upper-middle class family, in particular through the eyes of a young child, a scenario not dissimilar to, say, EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Further, this child, beautiful but lame, is somehow a figure for India itself, its scar of partition masked by her disability, or an embodiment of this soon-to-be-lost, dangerously naive innocence, scenes of great personal intimacy contrast with scenes of mass violence, until the two collide in the gut-wrenching climax. As with any historical epics, the film's sweeping smoothness conceals formal ruptures, as the film moves registers from the 'naturalistic' or narratively, psychologically plausible to Expressionism, to blatant allegory. This internal conflict may mirror the struggle over boundaries the film narrates.
If the film is conventional is outline, it is also intelligent, beautiful and economical in a way most stodgy historical epics are not. Its predominantly Western structure is filtered through with a restrained Bollywood sensuality, and, in the first half especially, after one has gotten used to the rather stilted dialogue and stylised situations, one is astounded by the caressing fluidity of the camerawork; the uncommon beauty of compositions, especially indoors, where the essentially muted 'earth' colours of the decor are pierced by unearthly shards of light; the profusion of dazzling colours, in costumes, and especially in the horrific marriage sequence, undermining the strained sobriety of most historical epics; the unforced breaks into song and dance, the accumulation of vignettes, some comic, some full of joy and promise, some bursting with foreboding, that give a sense of life being lived, a life already fragile in status, waiting to be destroyed; the unabashed use of melodrama, its critical framing device (in one horrible scene, the protagonists watch helplessly from a balcony the strangely beautiful conflict, passive like us the audience), and its emotional demands on the audience I realise that much of my pleasure comes from a racist 'Orientalism', a projection of my desires of exoticism and Otherness on the East, but my own country has a traumatic history of British Imperialism and partitions, so I don't feel too guilty.
The first half is as good as anything in cinema this year, once one has got used to the shifts in register. It is full of the autumnal sadness of a Chekhov play, or Ray's CHARULATA, or LE REGLE DU JEU, where we observe people living life, being friends, making love playing games, while we know history is sadistically poised on the brink, waiting to crush everything. Mehta never falls into nostalgia for this doomed idyll - she records the legacy of the British Empire; the horrors of the caste system; the emotional repression, the arranged marriages between senile paedophiles and pre-pubescent girls. But this section is also full of epiphany, the thrill of the sexual chase, friendship, poetry and, above all, comedy, all the things about to be distorted and destroyed by history as it performs a body snatching operation onto people we have come to love and turns them into vicious murderers.
The second half is an unrelenting catalogue of jolting spasms of violence. Day gives way to night, earthy browns and sun to blackness, friendship and love to death and hate. The film is also a bildungsroman, the tale of the development of a young girl as she learns about life, love, family, gender, language, society, history, culture, politics a development cruelly cut short, distorted, vandalised - when we see the charming dew-eyed narrator half a century later, emotionally in ruins as she stands self-effacingly in the ruins of Imperial pomp (an amazing shot, the film's sparing use of ruined architecture gives the film on occasion a ghostly feel), we sense irreperable loss.
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