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-[Film Reviews]-, South Asian Cinema

‘Earth’ (1998): Cinematic Sectarian Conflict


Directed by: Deepa Mehta || Produced by: Anne Masson, Deepa Mehta

Screenplay by: Deepa Mehta || Starring: Aamir Khan, Nandita Das, Maia Sethna, Rahul Khanna, Shabana Azmi, Kitu Gidwani, Arif Zakaria, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Kumar Rajendra, Pavan Malhotra

Music by: A. R. Rahman || Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens || Edited by: Barry Farrell || Country: Canada, India || Language: Hindi, English

Running Time: 101 minutes

Way, way back, ten thousands years ago in early 2013, one of the first film reviews I wrote was on Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), the first installment in her thematic Elements Trilogy (1996, 1998, 2005), which covers a range of controversial social issues within the Indian diaspora. Fire explores arranged marriage and homosexuality in South Asian culture, Earth covers South Asian religious tensions and sectarian violence stemming from the 1947 partition of India, and Water deals with suicide, misogyny, and treatment of widows in rural India.

Maia Sethna (second from right) hangs with her young adult neighbors and friends, including her family’s maid (Nandita Das, center), a local Masseur (Rahul Khanna, second from left), and a local frozen-candy vendor (Aamir Khan, far right).

At first glance, all three of these films would read like prototypical Oscar bait given their dark, depressing, sociopolitical subject-matter and ethnic color. The latter two films were in fact submitted to the Academy Awards for their Best Foreign Language Film category, Earth being India’s submission to the 72nd Oscars (though it was not a finalist). While I cannot speak for the latter, Water, at the moment, which did make the Foreign Language Film shortlist as a Canadian submission, the first two films are excellent. Fire and Earth have obvious political messages, yes, but they portray their sensitive topics as the complex social dynamics that they are, with no easy answers, and utilize memorable, multidimensional characters to explore them.

Nandita Das (from Fire) and Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan lead a strong cast fleshing out mid-20th century Lahore (now part of Pakistan), set directly before and during the British partition of India and the creation of the Pakistani state. While the premise and historical setting make for a predictable ending, how the story maneuvers its diverse cast of characters toward that inevitable tragic conclusion is engrossing. Our protagonist is one Maia Sethna, who plays a young girl affected with polio from an affluent Parsi family in Lahore. From this classical “childhood innocence” point-of-view, we witness her cohort of young adult neighbors and family employees (including Khan and Das), all of whom begin the story as close friends, disintegrate as the surrounding sociopolitical upheaval threatens to consume them all through sectarian warfare.

Aside from predictable strong performances from Das and Khan, the entire ensemble is well acted and memorable. Veteran actor Kulbhushan Kharbanda (also from Fire) lends further diversity through his evenhanded performance as an older, mature Imam; Sethna gives a memorable turn as an effective child-actor, portraying a child’s POV that deepens the film’s perspective and has consequences for the greater story. The aforementioned Khan has great chemistry with both Sethna and costar Rahul Khanna, in particular, and gives perhaps the most haunting, unsettling performance of his career.

Mehta’s seductive, sensual direction return in force, utilizing intense, extreme lighting contrasts in nighttime cinematography and effective ensemble staging during softly lit daytime sequences. Brief long-takes weave in and out of these relaxing, yet thematically crucial dialogue scenes, while the former’s low-key lighting setups are used both to highlight brutal sectarian violence as well as a memorable love scene. Her use of A. R. Rahman’s soundtrack is impeccable, subtly ramping up his sensual tunes when necessary and maintaining a strong, ambient musical identity throughout the narrative. Her staging of Sethna’s character is also critical, as most of the ensemble scenes cut to her reactions at critical moments, and her emotional responses either add further thematic layers to that particular scene or change the outcome of her castmates’ actions, or both.


Top: Nandita Das makes love to the Masseur. Bottom: Das earlier allows Aamir Khan to give her tips on flying kites.

What seals Earth as a standout sociological piece is its unforgettable, gutpunch of an ending. Mehta ties off every narrative thread in an almost poetic manner, and the following epilogue feels like a horror movie. It’s this attention to detail in story structure, characterizations, and intimate direction (particularly in emotional moments like the climax and the principal love-scene), that elevates Earth above most other self-righteous, post-colonialist ballads. As stated above, Mehta’s work is highly political and doesn’t shy away from blunt shock tactics at times, but the precision with which she times these shocking moments is what separates her pictures from many other lesser, would-be Oscar-selections. Occasional on-the-nose dialogue ranting on the British Empire can’t compare to a well timed, haunting character betrayal, nor those sexy as hell lighting techniques.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Earth is as strong a visual thematic treatise as Fire, if not stronger. Mehta writes a diverse ensemble of likable, relatable, and complex characters, all of whom have memorable impact on this colorful sociopolitical canvas. Her direction, particularly her lighting, editing, and use of music, are even stronger. Aamir Khan, Nandita Das, and Mia Sethna lead a strong cast.


? We’ve all got to have some place that we come from/This place that we come from is called home/Even though we may love this place that’s on the map/It ain’t where you from… it’s where you at!

About The Celtic Predator

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