“It is sudden,” Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa wrote in her novel Ice Candy Men about Partition. “One day everybody is themselves – and the next day, they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols.”

In the film adapted from Sidhwa’s semi-autobiographical novel from 1988, the hardening of religious identity has deeply tragic consequences. Deepa Mehta’s Earth powerfully reveals the turmoil that marked the division of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. This cataclysmic chapter in the subcontinent’s history was marked by the mass displacement of millions of people, massacres and the rape and abduction of women.

While there have been a fair number of films about Partition, few have examined the treatment of women during this period. In Earth (1998), the heaviest price for communal frenzy is paid by a young girl’s nanny.

Earth, which stars Aamir Khan, Nandita Das and Rahul Khanna in pivotal roles, followed Mehta’s trailblazing lesbian-themed drama Fire (1996). Even while making Fire, in which Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das play sisters-in-law who fall in love, Mehta was planning a film about “middle-class Punjabis dealing with colonialism and its Divide and Rule policy that led to the horrific sectarian war”.

Earth was inspired by Mehta’s own family history. “It was going to be loosely based on my parents’ experience as they ‘celebrated’ the Independence of India, which for them was always intertwined with the tragedy of its Partition,” she told Scroll.in. “They lived in Amritsar and Lahore was their second home.”

Mehta had been moved by MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1973), about the dilemma that confronts a Muslim family that chooses India over Pakistan, and Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Contininis (1970), about a Jewish family in Fascist-era Italy in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Sometime in 1997, Mehta saw a copy of Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man (which is also titled Cracking India) in a bookstore. A quote by Sidhwa on the cover caught Mehta’s eye: “All wars are fought on women’s bodies.”

“What could be more cinematic than those words?” Mehta said.

Nandita Das in Earth. Courtesy Hamilton-Mehta Productions.

Mehta’s screenplay for Earth distils the essence of Sidhwa’s novel. Betrayal – by governments, friends and neighbours – is one of the key themes in Ice Candy Man, represented by a young polio-afflicted girl modelled on Sidhwa herself.

In 1947 in Lahore, Lenny (Maia Sethna) and her wealthy parents (Kitu Gidwani and Arif Zakaria) are self-declared neutrals. As Parsis, they are at a remove from – though not unaffected by – the tumult that is simmering beyond their doorstep.

Parsis are like chameleons who take on the colour of those around them, Lenny’s mother observes. A British administrator is less optimistic: the Parsis will be “mangled into chutney”, he predicts, as groups of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs relocate across India and Pakistan. Later in the film, Lenny unwittingly repudiates her community’s reputation for staying out of the crosshairs.

Lenny’s beautiful Hindu nanny Shanta (Nandita Das) has several admirers and two main suitors. Shanta is friendly with ice-candy seller Dil Navaz (Aamir Khan) but her heart belongs to the masseur Hasan (Rahul Khanna). The love triangle has an additional angle in the form of Lenny, who dotes on Dil Navaz.

The clouds of conflict are gathering just beyond Shanta’s sun-dappled idyll. There’s just enough time to fly kites with Dil Navaz and go on a dreamy cycle ride with Hasan. Dil Navaz loses his nerve when trains carrying massacred Muslims from India start arriving in Lahore. Meanwhile, local Muslims turn on Hindus and Sikhs who have not yet fled to India.

One of the film’s most layered performances is by Aamir Khan. His Dil Navaz embodies the erasure of the boundary between religious feelings and political beliefs that marks accounts of Partition survivors. In a standout scene, Dil Navaz watches helplessly from a terrace as Lahore burns, his rage pickling into a hatred that frightens Shanta.

Aamir Khan and Maia Sethna in Earth. Courtesy Hamilton-Mehta Productions.

“David Hamilton and Jhamu Sughand were the two producers on the film,” Mehta said. “Jhamu gave Aamir the script. Aamir read it, liked it, we met, talked and that was it. I think he liked the challenge of Dil Navaz’s character arc – the ability of hatred to askew love and decency. It’s one of his most complex performances.”

Nandita Das, whom Mehta described as “luminous” in Earth, had already worked with the director in Fire. Rahul Khanna, in his first-ever movie role, was cast by Mehta after she saw him on television and was “completely bowled away by his charm”.

The cast includes such prominent names as Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Raghuvir Yadav, Pavan Malhotra and Navtej Johar. AR Rahman’s brilliant songs and Javed Akhtar’s poignant lyrics work in tandem with Mehta’s screenplay to bring out the gradual coarsening of longstanding relationships.

“I think the music composed by AR Rahman catches the poignancy of that period,” Mehta pointed out. “The hope, the loss of faith – it captures all of that. And the lyrics by Javed Akhtar, especially Ishwar Allah tere jahaan mein nafrat kyun hai jung hai kyun [O god, why is there hate and war in your realm] reflect the utter despair and madness of our times.”

Deepa Mehta. Photo by Janick Laurent.

Partition-era Lahore was recreated in Delhi. “We went to Lahore for a recce but the logistics of shooting there were enormous,” Mehta said. “We had a terrific location crew and Dilip Mehta, the creative producer, and [production designer] Aradhana Seth made Delhi feel completely authentic.”

Earth was distributed by Jhamu Sugandh. It had a limited run, and circulated more widely on pirated videos, Mehta recalled. To date, the film isn’t available on any streaming platform in India.

Other Partition-themed movies are more easily available, including recent clunkers such as Kalank and Sardar Ka Grandson. As India marks its 75th year of Independence, perhaps films such as Earth, which remind us of the lines arbitrarily drawn between countries and hearts, need to come back into view.

Yeh Jo Zindagi Hai, Earth (1998).

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Audio master: In AR Rahman’s ‘1947 Earth’, love, savagery and sonic brilliance

Book vs movie: In ‘Ice Candy Man’ and ‘Earth’, treats, unrequited love and betrayal