The story is set in Lahore in 1947, in the days just before India and Pakistan became independence. It is told through the eyes of Lenny Sethna, a little girl from an affluent Parsi family in Lahore. A good bit of the movie is about Shanta (Nandita Das), her ayah, and her suitors – Dil Navaz (Aamir Khan), the ice candy man, and Hassan (Rahul Khanna), the masseur. Dil Navaz is the colorful one, more obvious about his affections, while Hassan is quieter but has her heart.
And as this little drama unfolds, a bigger drama is unfolding in the background. Trains full of butchered bodies come across the border – Dil Navaz’ family was in one of them. Rumblings of a fundamentalist nature are heard all over the city. Non-muslims are either fleeing the city or converting to Islam to escape the ire of the rioters.
It comes to a head on the fateful morning when Hassan is found murdered, and a mob of militant muslims attacks the Sethna household. Dil Navaz is with them. Shanta, a Hindu, is hiding inside the house, and the family tries to protect her by lying about her whereabouts. But Dil Navaz knows better – he goes to Lenny, the little girl who has always been charmed by him, and asks the fateful question. In her innocence, she tells him the truth.
He straightens up, walks to the mob, tells them that she is inside the house, and sits in a corner smoking a beedi while they drag her out. She kicks and screams and cries, the mob jeers, the little girl, having realized the magnitude of her betrayal, cries that she lied and tries to make it all untrue. And he sits there, smoking.
Not so long ago, when his family was found dead on the train, he had talked about the raging beast that lives within each man, and how we do our best not to let it out. You sit there in shock, wondering if you were seeing the beast in him. But this, this air of nonchalance, this stillness, is more frightening than the rage you had expected to see. This is not anger – this is hate.