1947 Earth

In the year 1947, the British Empire gave up its control over India. A country where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had lived in relative harmony for over seven centuries was now divided into two countries – India and Pakistan. The violent division saw over 1 million people being killed in inter-religious violence across North and Eastern India, and another 12 million people were uprooted, marking the largest and most terrible transfer of population known to history. Deepa Mehta’s 1947 Earth is perhaps the best film to capture the shocking reality of these events.

In one scene, on the night of 15 August, a group of friends sit together in Lahore – now in Pakistan – and listen to the news on radio. It is independence day and the news tells of the celebrations in the two newly formed countries. But these friends – Hindus, Muslims, a Sikh – are anything but celebratory. Their grim faces tell of the massive killings in all parts of their city, taking place even at this moment. Another member of their group, passing by on a bicycle, stops and tells them:

“The train from across the border has arrived. It has only dead bodies on it. There are large sacs filled with women’s breasts. Among them were the sisters of Dilnawaz.”

The informer pedals on. The friends are left stunned. They stare into nothingness, as the awareness that the riots have now killed their own friends and their families gradually settles in. It is no longer about others. While these ordinary, working class friends sit in an eerie silence, the radio plays the historic speech that India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, delivered that very night:

“At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, but comes rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance…”

1947 Earth 1

Such moments exemplify the effect 1947 Earth has on you – it stuns you into wide-eyed silence, leaving you unable to digest the seering brutalisation of our humanity portrayed in the film. And what strikes you hardest is this – it really happened. To our forbears.

The film follows a group of working class friends in Lahore in the months before the partition of India. At the centre of this group is Shanta, a gentle, flirtatious Hindu girl who works as a maid in an upper-class household. She has a number of suitors. There is the quiet, thoughtful Hasan, a masseur, and a Muslim, whose affections Shanta reciprocates. There is also Dilnawaz, another Muslim. He is charming and humourous, but also given to pranks, which at times cross the boundaries of what is conventionally approved. A Sikh man who works at the zoo, a Hindu cook and another Muslim, a butcher, are also part of this group. We see them all get together several times, engage in banter and make themselves amiable to us.

As so-called ‘independence’ approaches, we see these joyous friends turning into foes. When the train from India arrives with hundreds of dead bodies in it, among them Dilnawaz’s sisters, Dilnawaz’s eyes betray the transformation of a human being into a beast. Broken by the brutal loss of his loved ones, Dilnawaz loses all sense of morality. He murders Hasan and abducts Shanta. The film ends with a harrowing long shot of Hasan forcibly putting Shanta on a cart, and driving it away, supported by tens of rioters shouting communal slogans. Among the mob is the butcher, who was once part of Shanta’s group of friends. We don’t know what will happen to Shanta, but we know that the events of history have friends into murderers, admirers into rapists. The bestiality of the amiable group of friends we saw in the beginning is now  complete.

In another scene, we see the 8 year old girl Lenny watch from a terrace as killings take place on the streets of Lahore. A man is caught by the mob, one of his legs is tied to a jeep, and the other leg to another jeep. The jeeps are then made to go in opposite directions and the camera shifts to the horror in Lenny’s eyes, leaving us to imagine the man’s body split open at the groin. The next day, when the killings have subsided for a while, Lenny takes a stuffed doll, asks her friend to hold one of its legs, and she holds the other leg. Lenny pulls the leg of the doll with all her force, splitting open its body at the groin. It is the only way the 8-year old girl can process the trauma of what she saw happen in her own city.

1947 Earth 2

A few days later, Lenny and her friend walk into a poor neighbourhood where they see a Muslim boy about the same age as them. They ask him where he is from, and he tells them that he lives there. His community was attacked by a mob and everyone was killed. He hid beneath the dead bodies to save himself. “When the mob went away, I went around looking for my mother. I could not find her in the heaps of corpses. Then I went to the mosque to rest. There I saw her corpse. There was blood all over her and she was fully naked,” he says with a completely blank face. He continues, “Are you Hindu?”. Lenny replies, “No, Parsi.” The boy opens his fist and shows three little marble balls. “Should we play marbles?”, he asks, as if nothing has happened.

It is such inhuman brutality that 1947 Earth portrays, effectively but always without gore. Scenes such as these must have occurred a thousand times over in 1947, making the beast in man emerge and take over all bonds of love and friendship that were built over several years before. What happens to these children who have witnessed such inexplicable horror? And how do those who looted, killed and raped live the rest of their lives, passing daily the very lanes where they violated their neighbours? One wonders if those who were killed were better off than those who killed and those who could not be killed.

1947 Earth portrays an immensely likable group of friends and then shows their lives destroyed by each other, demonstrating thus the fragility of what we consider normal life. Cracks in this facade of normality exist all the time, and the sweep of history can break them open without warning. At the heart of human beings, a monster awaits unveiling. Deepa Mehta, the film’s writer-director is doubtlessly a master at her art. The sheer intensity that seeps through every inch of the screen makes you view this film with respect and awe. One cannot forget Lahore as it is recreated in Giles Nuttgens’ camera, with dark and glowing scenes that record the harrowing passage of a history that cannot be, and should not be, forgotten.

As the credits roll, we hear a children’s hymn to God, written by Javed Akhtar, so beautiful in its innocence that it is almost angelic. Ironically, after leaving us awed with the brutality of humankind, it reminds us of the goodness human beings are capable of. I saw the credits roll down through tears in my eyes, as I did several other scenes in the film.

ishwar allah, tere jahaan mein

nafrat kyun hai, jang hai kyun 

tera dil to itna bada hai

insaan ka dil tang hai kyun

qadam qadam par sarhad kyun hai

saari zameen jo teri hai

sooraj ke phere karti hai

phir kyun itni andheri hai 

is duniya ke daaman par

insaan ke lahu ka rang hai kyun 

ishwar allah, tere jahaan mein 

nafrat kyun hai, jang hai kyun

goonj rahi hain kitni cheekhein 

pyaar ki baatein kaun sune

toot rahe hain kitne sapne 

itke tukde kaun chune 

dil ke darwaazon par taale

taalon par ye zang hai kyun… 

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~ by tdcatss on June 1, 2013.

4 Responses to “1947 Earth”

  1. You really see movies. Would love to watch one with you. And then, we can share our thoughts and maybe, write a review together! What do you say? :-)

  2. I learn so much just from your reviews, Kaif. Thank you!

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