EARTH —*** — Maia Sethna, Nandita Das, Rahul Khanna, Aamir Khan, Kitu Gidwani; in English and Hindi, with English subtitles; not rated, probable R (violence, profanity, sex, vulgarity, racial epithets, gore, brief nudity); exclusively at the Tower Theatre.

There's no such thing as an original idea in movies these days. The only thing original is the execution.

Case in point: "Earth," Canadian director Deepa Mehta's extremely controversial 1998 drama. The romance part of the story line will probably look familiar to U.S. audiences because of some obvious similarities to "Romeo and Juliet" and "West Side Story."

Meanwhile, the even more pertinent religious and ethnic intolerance portion of the tale has become a cliché in Indian cinema, though both it and the film as a whole caused protests and rioting in that country.

But Mehta manages to combine both plot elements with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. The results aren't exactly subtle, and the film's certainly not perfect, but it does pack a pretty potent wallop.

Based on Bapsi Sidhwa's autobiographical novel, "India Cracks," "Earth" looks at the tumult that followed 1947's Indian "independence," all from the perspective of Lenny (Maia Sethna), an 8-year-old Parsee girl living in Lahore.

To Lenny, the very idea of India being "freed" from English rule is exciting, so she can barely understand why her parents and friends are so nervous.

Their fears may be justified, though. It appears that Lahore may be given to Muslims as part of the new Pakistani state, and angry packs of Indians have begun to riot through the streets in protest.

Many Hindus and Sikhs begin to flee as the violence escalates, but Lenny's faithful nanny, Shanta (Nandita Das), is torn. She should flee for her own safety, but, at the same time, she wants to resolve her feelings for her two Muslim suitors, masseur Hasan (Rahul Khanna) and entrepreneur Dil Navaz (Aamir Khan).

Reconstructing post-World War II India and dealing with such a bloody period in the country's history is a massive undertaking for Mehta, whose previous movie was the equally controversial but less ambitious "Fire" (the first part of her "Elements" film series).

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, she's up to the task and somehow manages to explain the long history of India's differing ethnicities in the process.

She's helped immeasurably by a talented cast, which includes a pair of newcomers (Sethna and Khanna) and an Indian superstar (Khan).

However, it's Das who really impresses with an understated performance, and she carries more than a couple of scenes with a simple facial expression.

"Earth" is not rated but would probably receive an R for mob violence (including gunfire and a disturbing torture scene), profanity, simulated sex, some crude humor, use of racial epithets and ethnic slurs, gore and brief male nudity. Running time: 110 minutes.