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Nothing average about filmmaker Deepa Mehta, says ANDREW L. URBAN, when he meets her for tea – and a gentle conversation (peppered with pain) about India’s hideous Holocaust of 1947, the subject of her latest film, Earth.

When Deepa Mehta begins shooting her next film, Water, on the banks of The Ganges in Benares on November 1, 1999, it will have been seven years since her last visit to this 2000 year old holy city, the Hindu equivalent of Mecca. That last time was to direct the Benares titled episode of George Lucas’ Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. It’s an odd juxtaposition, you may think, but Mehta is not an average filmmaker. Or an average person. She married (and later divorced) "a white Canadian Jew" and has an 18 year old daughter, Devyani (Little Goddess) proud of her cultural mix, who is studying in Toronto, where Mehta has one of two homes ("I leave Canada in November," she says, referring to the onset of winter there.) The other is near New Delhi, where she was born and raised. More on that crucial subject a bit later.

"one of India’s contemporary filmmakers"

She pours me tea (we’re in the Executive Lounge of a Sydney hotel where she is staying) careful with her crisp white dupata (shawl) which wraps around her blue kameez (Indian shirt) adorned with a pink and flower pattern, over her cream salwar (traditional Indian trousers).

Slight, bright and smart, Mehta, began her film career with children’s scripts but established her directing credentials with her first feature, Sam & Me, winning the first Honourable Mention at Cannes in 1991, where it was eligible for the Camera d’Or.

Along with Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, Bandit Queen), she is one of India’s contemporary filmmakers who works in the global marketplace, not within India’s fabulous and busy domestic industry. Both enjoy high profiles and great respect. Fire, her third feature, written, directed and produced by Mehta herself, has so far won 14 international awards.

"These are the elements that nurture us, but also that can destroy us"

Fire was the first of her planned trilogy, Fire, Earth, Water. Fire deals with the politics of sexuality; Earth deals with the politics of land and nationalism; and Water will deal with the politics of religion. "These are the elements that nurture us, but also that can destroy us," she says.

Indeed, Earth is a shattering revelation for many, based on Cracking India, the semi-autobiographical account of the 1947 partition of India and creation of Pakistan, by Bapsi Sidhwa, then an eight year old girl. "A lot of people," says Mehta, "have no awareness of these events." But she refers only to people outside India. For India and Pakistan, "it was our Holocaust; my father grew up in Lahore (now in Pakistan) and the family had to leave in tragic circumstances. My father’s family were some of the 11 million people that were uprooted from their homes during the Partition. I grew up hearing stories about the carnage, the rapes and the mindless acts of violence that people who had lived together in relative harmony for centuries, committed against each other, in the name of nationalism and religion."

As the British were leaving India, this was their final legacy: an arbitrary line that would give a piece of the land, Pakistan, to the Muslims, and the rest to the Hindus and Sikhs. Lord Mountbatten oversaw the operation, but the actual line was drawn by Sir Radcliffe, who knew nothing about India and had arrived just two weeks earlier. The line cut through villages in some cases. "In my view," says Mehta, "the really unforgivable thing was that nobody knew where the line was going to be until two days prior (to it becoming effective on the day of independence on August 15, 1947). To this day, the repercussions of that are felt throughout the country. For many, the first thing that the year 1947 represents is the Partition – not Independence."

"over a million people were killed in sectarian violence"

It is estimated that over a million people were killed in sectarian violence as six million Muslims moved towards Pakistan and five million Hindus and Sikhs moved towards India. The religious labels became badges of hate.

The curious thing is that Mehta had started writing a treatment of her planned film as she neared the end of post production on Fire. Then one day in a bookshop, she noticed a book" the title Cracking India was written in fine black print down the spine of a paperback – but it could have been emblazoned in neon lights," she says. "My attraction to it was immediate. I read the book and threw my treatment into the garbage bin." It was to have been her father’s story.

After tracking down novelist Bapsi Sidhwa, producer David Hamilton’s tenacity helped put the project together, despite several setbacks, and after a Hindu priest had broken a coconut, garlanded the camera and blessed the cast and crew, shooting began in January 1998.

"The love scene," says Mehta, "was the most difficult from the actors’ point of view. It has to be very carefully choreographed so it doesn’t become gratuitous. I wanted to make it sensual and erotic – without too much flesh." The scene, between Ice Candy Man and Ayah, plays a crucial, heart-wrenching role in the story.

Mehta’s intention with making this film was to "try and understand what happened and why. What is the politics of nationalism. I even wrote a scene which is not in the book, where Ice Candy Man (Aamir Khan), when he asks Ayah (Nandita Das) to marry him… and he explains how it’s not about Muslims and Hindus, but something inside all of us, something animal…and how civil war allows people to realise their worst possible potential."

"I hope it will start a dialogue about the themes in the film"

For Mehta, the film’s acute specificity speaks equally to the rest of the world: "I am interested to see Western reaction to the film," she says, "and I hope it will start a dialogue about the themes in the film, because of what continues to happen all over the world." While this story puts the present conflict between India and Pakistan in some sort of context, Mehta points to the film’s relevance in Northern Ireland, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Rwanda . . . it has vile universal resonance.

She doesn’t have to wait long for Western response: at the Sydney Film Festival, she was delighted with the enthusiasm and interest shown by the audience. And on September 10, Earth opens in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Italy – and India. (In Australia, Earth opens September 16, 1999, in Melbourne, and October 21 in Sydney, with other states to follow.)

Mehta considers herself a liberal, "perhaps left wing," and is a Hindu, "but I don’t go to the temple every day – I’m not ritualistic." She also confesses to be "a real sucker for irony and dark humour. I’d love to do a comedy – not a broad farce, but something ironic."

Speaking of irony, Mehta and novelist Bapsi Sidwha are both well aware of the irony of their situation. "Bapsi is from Pakistan and now a US citizen. I’m from India living in Canada. If neither of us had moved from our respective homelands the film just wouldn’t have been possible." Pakistan and India are sworn enemies – since 1947. They have fought three major wars and are wagging nuclear fingers at each other.

"the ultimate weakness in our species"

Mehta had wanted to shoot the film in Lahore itself, "but the Government (Pakistan) never replied to our request." A symbolic silence, perhaps. But as Ice Candy Man says, the blame is equally shared by all, from the British to the religious sects – it’s a human failing, the ultimate weakness in our species. Is it, perhaps, the real Original Sin, as Christians call the first but eternally echoing human error by Adam and Eve?

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