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August 17, 1999


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How Cracking India Became Earth

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Radhika R Shankar in Houston

Cracking India Her parents thought home tutoring would spare their eight-year-old daughter the challenges of attending school when Bapsi Sidhwa contracted polio but they could not keep her from experiencing the wounds of Partition -- a nightmare that would become the focus of their daughter's writings.

The New York Times referred to Sidhwa as 'Pakistan's finest English-language novelist,' and named her book, Cracking India as one of 1991's notable books. The Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Award gave her $ 100,000 in 1993. And her native land bestowed upon her the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, the nation's highest honor for the arts. But the author of four novels, short stories and essays says she did not think of herself as a writer until she was 26 years old.

On the eve of the release of Earth, a film adaptation of Sidhwa's novel Cracking India (Ice Candy Man in India), Sidhwa shared her thoughts in an interview for, on the making of the film and her writings. Sidhwa, who has taught literature at Columbia University, Mount Holioake College and several other prestigious institutions, has lived in Houston for most part since she came to America in 1985.

"I feel very positive about the final version of the film even though at first I was a little shocked at how some of the scenes were edited out," said the 61-year-old author.

Cracking India, Sidhwa's third novel, tells a story of Partition as seen through the eyes of Lenny, a seven-year old polio-afflicted Parsi girl.

When Canadian film-maker Deepa Mehta came across the novel at a bookstore in Seattle, Washington, she decided the story would work well for the second film in her trilogy -- Earth.

"Deepa called me and we talked for an hour and I was convinced that she was the right person to make the film and I also felt that as a Punjabi, Deepa would easily understand the norms of Punjabi society," said Sidhwa, who was born in Karachi but moved soon to Lahore with her parents.

Mehta immediately went to work drafting the script of her Canadian $ 3.2 million budget film.

"Deepa had more or less written the first draft even before the contract was signed," said Sidhwa laughing. Sidhwa and Mehta spent about three hours every day developing the script.

In the end, Sidhwa admits that the script was a fascinating transformation of the novel.

"I think that Deepa has captured the spirit of the book and has created the vision of Lenny. Hers is a magical vision, the way she put the order of things, how she eliminated and amalgamated characters, she has carved the film out of the book."

" Cracking India deals with two countries that are absolute enemies, offering something to both points of view," she has said.

The author is particularly happy that her first novel to be made into a film has been handled by someone like Mehta. "The way she made Earth is quite extraordinary. Deepa -- she is very energetic. During the filming she would not sleep more than three hours a day."

Sidhwa says that being a part of the film's creation had been a very incredible experience. "The whole script was first in English and Deepa felt that it would be a bit absurd to have the servants speak in English and slowly a medley of languages was brought in."

Deepa Mehta and Bapsi Sidhwa Her experience with film-makers in Pakistan and the US had left Sidhwa disenchanted with the process. "I am not a screenplay writer, I am a novelist and if somebody wants to make a film then that's fine, but otherwise, I don't really care."

With the experience of working closely with Mehta in making Earth, Sidhwa feels differently about the process of having her novels made into films. "I went when the film was almost two weeks into the shooting and I was so startled on the sets and the close re-creation that, at times, I felt I was looking upon myself," Sidhwa recalls.

Art director Aradhana Seth spent hours pouring over Sidhwa's photo collections and researching every aspect of the visuals to recreate parts of Lahore in 25 locations in Delhi.

"While writing the book I distanced myself from the child Lenny -- she is not me, but somehow seeing the sets. And seeing this girl bubbling about I felt the distance has been bridged this is almost autobiography what I am seeing. My brother had visited from Lahore and he too said, 'My god, we are looking at our childhood.' The scenes were memorable," said Sidhwa who frequently visited the sets.

"I think the first rough edit was the most memorable part of having the novel translated into a movie," Sidhwa said.

Playing a small but congruent role in the film as the grown-up Lenny was another experience the author said she would never forget. "It was a cold day in Delhi and I had to sit on a rock in a very light saree and make some comments but the wind kept blowing all the light objects around."

Sidhwa has decided to take a break from her teaching to make room to help promote the film. If she ever has to do it all again for another of her novels, Sidhwa says, "I guess I would be more insistent on retaining the name of the book." She said that even though Mehta toyed with titles like Cracking the Earth they couldn't find something that could fit in with the trilogy and still be in keeping with the title.

The film recently won the Grand Prize at the Deauville Panasian Film Festival in France and Timeout, the London magazine, already mentions Earth as one of the top ten films of 1999.

The film will open in various US cities in September.

Laughter Is a Serious Business For Sidhwa

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