'1947 Earth' Review: Independence and Partition through the lens of Deepa Mehta

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

Rimli Bhattacharya

“Partition and a movie?” I say to my then boyfriend.

“All sorts of hypocrisy will be portrayed. Criminal waste of three hours,” I added.

He didn’t listen. So in a warm afternoon both of us walked in to the Eros Cinema.

What I thought to be a fun watch turned into a massacre. Dead bodies everywhere, blood, gore, violence, bodies ripped apart and the list is endless. So this is what we witnessed in Deepa Mehta’s movie based on the book Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa. I was still in a denial mode saying such pogrom is only possible in movies but not in real life. My boyfriend smiled and we boarded our train from Churchgate station. It’s no joke but when I married my boyfriend I found him no less brutal than the Ice Candy man, Dil Navaz (played by Aamir Khan) in the blockbuster movie 1947 Earth which I have been talking about.

The movie is shown through the eyes of an eight year old girl Lenny (played by Maia Sethna) who had the privilege of being a Parsee amidst the Hindus and Muslims who were competing on the number of killings each sect has accomplished.  Lenny the only daughter of Rustom Sethna (played by Arif Zakaria) and Bunty Sethna (played by Kitu Gidwani) hails from a rich family background. They reside in Lahore then a part of India.Her ayah or nanny, Shanta (played by Nandita Das) a young Hindu woman with perfect curves and smiles draws her male suitors every time she travels to the nearby Queens Gardens along with Lenny. These men hail from separate bloodlines. They are Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Lenny’s world is a pleasing one comprising an Ayah a Hindu, cook (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) a muslim, Dil Navaz a scoundrel but Lenny’s hero and Hasan (played by Rahul Khanna) a masseur whosemassage oil is based on his experiments from pearl dust and fish eggs and an intelligent cousin Adi. The only problem Lenny has are her legs. One of her leg is braced as she had been a victim of polio a fact which has no importance in the movie.

As violence creeps in Lahore it becomes clear that partition is all this film is talking about. Says William Dalrymple in the New Yorker “In August, 1947, when, after three hundred years in India, the British finally left, the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.

Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented. In Punjab and Bengal—provinces abutting India’s borders with West and East Pakistan, respectively—the carnage was especially intense, with massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence. Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered”.

Nisid Hajari, in “Midnight’s Furies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), his fast-paced new narrative history of Partition and its aftermath, writes, “Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.”

Coming back to the story the partition concept disturbs Lenny and there are clips showing her throwing tantrums, tearing her doll apart which she had witnessed when a man was torn apart in two parts. Though her family ensured that they are Parsee’s and are safe and neutral but the assurance fails to calm Lenny. There Dil Navaz advances towards Shanta, but Shanta had already given her heart to Hasan. Hasan promises Shanta that they will move to India and he will become a Hindu. Lenny overhears and also witness their love making along with Dil Navaz. Next morning Hasan’s body is recovered from a jute bag. The Sethna household witnesses the heat when a group of Muslim men headed by Dil Navaz attacks their household in search of Shanta.

1947 Earth doesn’t hesitate on its assessment of the British impact of 1947, especiallydepending on the loss of childhood innocence, through Lenny, as a witnessof the pogrom that took place. The movie is a barbaricportrayal of the birth of Pakistan, and the killings which took place on the way to and from.

Coming back to the story again what happens to Shanta, Dil Navaz, the Sethna household and Lenny? I really don’t know. What I know is an old Lenny sitting in a graveyard and murmuring that she was the one who betrayed her nanny Shanta. Betrayal? How? Why? So why not watching the film again – what say people?

About Author 

Rimli Bhattacharya is a first class gold medalist in Mechanical Engineering with a MBA in supply chain management. She has contributed to two anthologies, A Book of light and Muffled Moans and has written two solo books, The crosshairs of life and That day it rained and other stories. Her other works have appeared in twenty nine literary magazines & E – Zines. She is also an Indian Classical dancer. Views expressed are personal.

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