Deepa Mehta's 1947: Earth Is One Of Our Finest Period Dramas

The film is marked by crude ironies and contrasts in its representation of the tragedy of partition
Deepa Mehta's 1947: Earth Is One Of Our Finest Period Dramas

The history of Kings and Emperors, the rise and fall of Empires, as well as the series of foreign invasions, have been bedtime stories for most Indians. India, as a hub for a variety of historical events, has been the backdrop for a plethora of period drama films. While movies like Jodhaa Akbar, Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat have created history themselves with their grand, eloquent dialogues, vivid colours and distinct fashion, movies like Lagaan, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha tells the story of the common people during the time of crisis. In league with the latter, Deepa Mehta’s expertise meets the genre of period drama and strikes up a conversation that has been carried on for decades since Indian Independence behind closed doors. 1947: Earth, the final installment in her Elements trilogy, does not limit itself to romanticising and valorising the imagined past but brings it into the perspective of contemporary relevance. 

Mehta draws inspiration from her own experiences during the 1947 partition and collates them with Bapsi Sidhwa’s semi-autobiographical novel Cracking India to showcase the recklessness of the purportedly inevitable partition. Narrated by an older Lenny (Shabana Azmi) and seen through the point of view of a little Lenny (Maia Sethna), we are introduced to a group of friends who turn against each other and a love triangle that takes a horrid shape as the tension of partition rises. 

Deepa Mehta's 1947: Earth Is One Of Our Finest Period Dramas
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The friendship that represents unity irrespective of class and religion, doesn’t stay the same throughout. Dil Navaz (Aamir Khan), Hassan (Rahul Khanna) and the butcher (Pawan Malhotra) are Muslims, Sher Singh is Sikh while Shanta (Nandita Das) is a Hindu woman. As they get together in subsequent meetings, the small albeit petty fallouts between them take us back to what Shanta said at the very onset of the movie, “Madam, I have heard that before the British give us independence, they will dig a long canal. One side India, the other side Pakistan.” The small group becomes a microcosm for the burning nation and the rift that develops between them is the ‘long canal’ that divides the people and the nation.

The film is marked by crude ironies and contrasts in its representation of the tragedy of partition. As the news of the train carrying bodies of Muslim men and “four sacks filled with women’s breasts” reached the friends, the radio cuts off the silence with the famous ‘Tryst of Destiny’ speech that Nehru gave on Independence Eve. The irony becomes clear as Hariya (Raghuvir Yadav) notes, “Some independence they give us, soaked in our brother’s blood.” The contrast in the two scenes on the terrace screams at the state of being, as earlier it was a sight of festivity while the latter was one of smoke, fire and bloodshed. 

Praised for his brilliant performance, Aamir’s Dil Navaz takes a tragic turn when he witnesses the dead bodies on the train that was carrying his sisters as well. Rejected in love and having lost his family, the beast, the proverbial “lion” within him that Lenny was so afraid of is let out. The love triangle that ensues between Shanta, Dil Navaz and Hassan ends in despair as Hassan gets killed and Shanta’s body becomes the site of war when a group of people invades the Sethna house, drags her out and takes her away. It came as a shocking twist as, in the end, Dil Navaz takes advantage of Lenny’s trust and innocence into revealing Shanta’s hideout.  

Deepa Mehta's 1947: Earth Is One Of Our Finest Period Dramas
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Lenny, brought up with extreme care and love, struggles to understand the depth of the partition. In the very first scene, she breaks a plate and asks her mother if a country could be broken. Then with time, she witnesses how fear encroaches upon people as they convert from one religion to another and marries off their children for their safety. Her innocence is lost as she witnesses refugees who have been raped and listens to a refugee boy’s first-hand account of how he found his mother naked with her hair tied to a ceiling fan. She tries and fails to grasp the gravity of the situation as she tears her doll apart and cries. Seen through her point of view, the movie could have hinted at the absurdity of the entire state of partition. Instead, Mehta’s point of view comes as the surrealist “jolt” and wakes her audience up.

When Deepa Mehta's Funny Boy’came out in 2020 telling the story of a young boy in love during the social turmoil in Sri Lanka, it becomes proof that adverse situations across time and space result in meaningless futility. 1947: Earth has been one of Mehta’s earliest films and like Fire, this film too, caught attention. It was banned in Pakistan while the Indian Censor Board made a significant number of cuts to it. The movie stands out in its presentation of characters, and in what becomes typical of Deepa Mehta, the struggle of the characters becomes an internal struggle amidst the external chaos. The film, in its presentation of characters, setting and plot, remains etched in our hearts forever as a period drama that is beautiful in its realism.

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