Deepa Mehta's sorrowful film, "Earth," the second in a projected trilogy of fire, earth and water, is bathed in a deep golden light that at moments recalls the orange sky silhouetting the sweaty faces of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind" during the burning of Atlanta. This amber glow gives the film, which remembers the tragic events surrounding the partition of India in 1947, a ruddy sensuality along with a sense of nocturnal foreboding.
"Earth," adapted from Bapsi Sidhwa's semi-autobiographical novel "Cracking India," views these events through the eyes of 8-year-old Lenny Suthna (Maia Sethna), the pampered daughter of an affluent Parsee family in Lahore. The Parsee community, descended from Muslims who fled Persia in the 9th century, became closely aligned with the British colonialists in India. During the partition, they avoided persecution by adopting a neutral stance that Lenny's father compares to Switzerland's neutrality during World War II.
There's nothing like an innocent child's perspective on adult violence to underline its tragic and senseless aspects.
But a child's perspective on such monumental events inevitably cannot do them full justice. The movie's history and politics are mostly laid out in conversations that the little girl overhears.
As the story begins, the British have just announced the partition of India into two countries (predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan), and the members of the Sethna household, which welcomes all sects, are worrying about the future.
During a dinner party, one of the guests, an imperious British official, disdainfully predicts havoc and gets into a fight with a Sikh after sneering at what he calls Sikh fanaticism.
The quarrel offers just a hint of the horrors to come.
Toward the end of the film, as Hindus and Muslims who have lived together peacefully in the (now Pakistani) city of Lahore begin butchering one another and setting fires, you have a sinking feeling of helplessness. Now that the evil genie of suppressed ethnic hatred has been let out of the bottle and the cycle of eye-for-an-eye violence has begun, there's no turning back.
"Earth" is a powerful and disturbing reminder of how a civilization can suddenly crack under certain pressures.
Starring Aamir Khan, Maia Sethna
Directed by Deepa Mehta
Running time 99 minutes
Released by Zeitgeist Films
Sun score * * *
(In Hindi, Urdu, Parsee and Punjabi, with English subtitles)