American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
England, having colonized India at its leisure, granted it independence with unseemly haste. Even its most outspoken nationalists were taken aback when Lord Mountbatten, the British viceroy, unexpectedly announced that the date for independence was a few months, not a few years, in the future. The British decision to pull out by Aug. 15, 1947, left a country with no orderly way to deal with the rivalries between Hindus and Muslims, and the partition of India and Pakistan along religious lines led to bloodshed, massacres and, as this film calls it, "the largest and most terrible exchange of population in history." "Earth" is a film that sees that tragedy through the eyes of a group of friends in Lahore, then in India, now in Pakistan. There are Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees, even a Christian or two. They have lived side-by-side since time immemorial, and the more idealistic think that situation can continue. But as India has proven, along with Northern Ireland, the Middle East and Yugoslavia, many members of all faiths consider it no sin to murder a non-believer.
The film is told as a melodrama and romance, not docudrama, and that makes it all the more effective. It sees much of the action through the eyes of a little brace-legged Parsee girl named Lenny, whose beautiful Hindu nanny, or "ayah," is admired by all the men in a circle of friends. The ayah is Shanta (Nandita Das), with glowing eyes and a warm smile. She slowly comes to love Hasan, a masseur (Rahul Khanna), who is Muslim. She likes, but does not love, Dil, known as "Ice Candy Man" and played by the Indian star Aamir Khan. Her life is pleasant in a wealthy Parsee household ruled by Lenny's kind mother and officious father.
The friends meet in a nearby park, for talk that sometimes turns political. They all agree that they are above hatreds based on religion. The little girl looks and listens. Often she is present when Hasan courts the shy Shanta, and even watches as they share their first bashful kiss--just before the screen turns black and ominous music introduces shots of Hindu refugees trekking from the new Pakistan to India, and Muslims making the opposite journey.
It is hard for us to imagine the upheaval and suffering unleashed when the British washed their hands of the jewel in their crown. Imagine a United States in which those with a last name beginning with a vowel had to leave their homes and belongings and trek north, while those with a consonant had to leave everything behind and trek south. Now add bloodthirsty mobs of zealots on all sides.
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