Shanta – Nandita Das
Ice Candy Man, Dilnawas – Aamir Khan
Mallishwallah, Hassan – Rahul Khanna
Lenny – Maia Sethna
The film is based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice Candy Man (1988), which was later republished as Cracking India (1991). To write a sociological analysis of a film is often difficult as one needs to separate the technicalities and aesthetics of filmmaking from the sociological perspectives. Aesthetically 1947 Earth remains true to the art of filmmaking. Based in Lahore during the Partition of India , the story is about an ayah Shanta and the two men - Ice Candy Man, Dilnawas and the Malishwallah, Hassan who vie for her love, told through the lens of an 8 yrs. old girl Lenny.
This story plays itself out amidst the rising political, social and religious tensions in India. The mainstay of the film is the change in Lahore and its people, as the Partition date draws near. Deepa Mehta captures the landscape of Lahore in deep earthy shades of orange and yellow in peacetime. This changes when a train from Gurdaspur arrives in the middle of the night filled with Muslim corpses and Lahore turns into Dante’s inferno. In the same way she captures the change in social relations when the melting pot of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus that make up Lahore change from friends to foes while coping with the loss of identity that the Partition creates.
A. R. Rahman’s music not only has standalone value but also propels the film forward without overpowering the screenplay. He skilfully uses the ambient sounds of slogan chanting and marching as a background score. The success of the film though lies in its cast, which in spite of being illustrious are enveloped by their respective roles. Each character shines through no matter how small or big. Nandita Das is so earthy and realistic in her portrayal of a coquettish maid, Rahul Khanna speaks through his eyes and intense screen presence, Kitu Gidwani and Aarif Zakaria play the archetype gentle Parsi couple who strive to remain neutral amidst the chaos of choosing sides, that surrounds them, Gulshan Grover shows the passage of transition from an arrogant wealthy Sikh to a man humbled by the trails of Partition, Raghuvir Yadav brings out the helplessness of the weaker people in society that have no choice but to conform and comply to larger social forces while Aamir Khan as usual is outstanding in his portrayal of the ultimate ‘Beheroopiya’ one day an Ice Candy man next a Parrot Seller or a Sufi Saint, eventually transforming in a shocking avatar towards the climax.
A Sociological Perspective:
Some films reinforce stereotypes; some reject them while others reflect stereotypes. 1947 Earth does all three through an eclectic ensemble of characters and their portrayal.
In 1947 the departing British rulers, in collaboration with the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League announced the Partition of India into Muslim ruled Pakistan and Hindu dominated India. The worst repercussions of this decision were felt in Punjab - a state straddled between the two imagined nations. Hence Lahore, its capital city, becomes the bloody theatre of what is often described as the worst manmade disaster in the latter half of the century.
Lenny the crippled girl from an affluent Parsi family in Lahore is around whom the events pivot. Between the assortment of people that her family and her beautiful nanny attract, Lenny gains insight into the social interactions of not only the Muslim , Hindus and Sikhs that formed the cultural milieu of Lahore but also the affluent families and their timorous ties with the British which form the upper crust of Lahore society.
The first part of the film establishes the stereotypes. The Parsis, a religious sect that immigrated to India in the 9th century, strive to remain neutral and ‘invisible’ due to their dwindling population, as Lenny’s mother explains to her. The dinner table banter immediately identifies the ‘angry Sikh’ while the joke about the Indian man in the train drinking his own urine reinforce the idea of the Hindu element of the State, owing to its association with Hindu practices.
Shanta being a dusky village belle of sorts attracts men of all caste, creeds and trades around her. Apart from the Ice- Candy Man and the Mallishwallah, is a Hindu gardener Hariya, the Sikh zookeeper – Sher Singh and the Muslim butcher. Even the allocation of jobs remains true to type between the men. What struck me as unusual though is the ease and openness with which Shanta- a Hindu girl, interacts with this group of men, those too largely Muslim. This doesn’t hide the Chauvinistic and Patriarchal character of society though which is highlighted by instances like Shanta being called a loose women in whispers, the child marriage of Lenny’s lower caste playmate to an old Christian man and the censure a young boy receives because his mother was raped and killed. Inspite of this, Shanta’s relative independence and Kitu Gidwani’s strong character, be it driving her husband around or hosting parties, shows somewhat liberal space available to women in that society.
As the date of Partition draws closer the friendly banter, both across elegant dinner tables and rustic dhabas, changes into anger and rivalry. An interesting bit is when the Sufi saint, culturally accepted by all religions in the Indian subcontinent, is disputed as ‘my saint’ and ‘your saint’ by the quarrelling Muslim and Sikh groups. The familiarity of Lenny’s world changes completely when a train arrives from Gurdaspur filled with corpses of Muslims. This is the turning point of the film where social rules are turned upside down as identities evolve. Allegiances change with the polarization of identities. Religious identity takes precedence over national identity and breaks bonds of kinship. This episode throws up many questions. What is the glue that holds society? Which identity comes first? It seemed to me that while for some their religion took precedence, for others their ethnicity and ties to the territory they belonged were stronger. Here then does region define religion or is it the other way round? While some flee and some fight, the weaker sections of society like Hariya have no choice but to comply with the larger societal forces around them. That is why maybe the majority of the Hindus who stayed behind in the newly created Pakistan were the Dalits.
With this breaking of stereotype what shines through is the reaction of Lenny to the events around her. She has a morbid curiosity about Dilnawas’s sisters who were massacred, is uninhibited about sharing cake with the Muslim boy who’s mother was raped and affronted that her birthday celebrations take a backseat in these troubled times. It goes to show that stereotypes are learnt. While Lenny had learnt the social practice of celebrating her birthday and held it important, she yet had to grasp the concepts of communal differences and gender biases.
Dilnawas whose sisters were amongst the corpses in the train highlights the change in the nature of men when pushed beyond the point of endurance. Seeing Shanta with Hassan breaks the last of his resistance, the consequences of which are horrifying for everyone involved. What happens in the end is anarchy. Much like the French Revolutions and its decent into anarchy that led to Emile Durkheim’s attempts to find the social glue that would bring back order to society. The climax of the film is a mirror that reflects how deep inbuilt stereotypes run.
Above all the film addresses the deep damage that colonialism can wreak even long after the foreign overlords are gone. In the historical contexts, the colonial forces for their own gain had stoked cultural and ethnic divisions between communities that had co existed more or less peacefully for centuries like the Muslims and Hindus in the subcontinent. The film portrays the violence between the respective groups occurring in the vacuum left behind when the white folks from the West who created the tinderbox lit the fuse and then abruptly withdrew.