Writer-director Deepa Mehta’s Earth takes place in India in 1947, when the British withdrawal from that country allowed the long-brewing animosity between the Hindus and the Muslims to boil over into a bloody religious war.
Careful not to take sides (and how could it with so much mutual bloodshed?), the film is both overly schematic in its presentation of points of view – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians all get a turn at bat – and shamelessly reductive, using, in the manner of David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago, a seismic and complex historical upheaval as a backdrop to a more easily comprehended, traditionally romantic one.
The central character is Shanta (Nandita Das), a Hindu nanny for a Parsi family whose charge is a young crippled girl with the somewhat disconcerting nickname of "Lenny Baby." Shanta, young and beauteous, and Lenny, sweet and cloying, hang out at a local park where a group of young men from diverse religious backdrops meet to discuss the issues of the day, when not displaying their essential commonality by flirting with Shanta. Two men in particular, both Muslims, are drawn to the nanny and it soon becomes apparent that no matter which of the Romeos ends up with this Juliet, it’s all going to come to a bad end.
Mehta’s film is at times ambitious, grim and sensual, and tainted by obvious symbolism and sentimentality. But if her love story and her awful Lenny Baby, representing the hobbled future of the partitioned country, border on the hackneyed, when crunch time comes she doesn’t flinch from the bloody horror (or the bloody pointlessness) of religious conflict.
Mehta at this point seems a more compelling director than writer, her easy handling of mob scenes undercut by her melodramatic narrative. She has all the earmarks of a classic director of epics – mainly a good eye and a basic mistrust of the viewer’s intelligence.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.