Viceroy’s House, 2017.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha.
Starring Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Michael Gambon, Huma Qureshi, Lily Travers, Simon Callow, and Om Puri.
Lord Mountbatten, as the last appointed Viceroy of India in 1947, is tasked with handing the country back to its people after 300 years of British imperial rule. His and his family’s hopes for a smooth transition come under immense pressure as the traumatic reality of Partition becomes apparent.
Viceroy’s House is, at heart, a well-meaning and carefully balanced film about a particularly bloody chapter of India and Pakistan’s shared history – Partition. Director and screenwriter Gurinder Chadha, alongside her co-writers Moira Buffini and frequent collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges, has taken great pains to ensure a largely sympathetic re-telling of all sides of this history, but perhaps sacrifices some of the film’s bite in the process. It is, however, still an engaging and visually stunning piece of cinema. It also works well for an audience whose knowledge of the Mountbatten Plan is most likely tucked away on a dusty shelf back in the far reaches of their mind.
Hugh Bonneville is at peak Britishness in his role as the titular last Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, portrayed here as a more of a decent chap than other more damning historical accounts would suggest, as well as quite similarly to a certain Earl of Grantham (although rather less dim). He and his family, forthright wife Edwina (an almost painfully RP Gillian Anderson) and loyal daughter Pamela (Lily Travers), are established as ‘good eggs’ pretty quickly as they attempt to form a more approachable and relaxed household at Viceroy’s House. They fire British staff who show any signs of distaste for their Indian co-workers and implement a less British menu for functions. There’s a particularly sweet scene where Bonneville is introduced to his valets, including first-day-on-job Jeet (Manish Dayal), and he re-assures him with the fact that they are both “new boys” – although this exacting standards of dress may take some getting used to! The Mountbattens are also depicted as a team, aware to a certain extent of the poisoned chalice they’ve inherited as they prepare to hand India back to her deeply divided people; there’s to be no “letting the side down” with tears.
The ‘downstairs’ plot revolves around a possible romance between Hindu valet Jeet (Dayal) and Lady Pamela’s Muslim translator Aalia (Huma Qureshi), thwarted by the divisions of the country and Aalia’s father (an always-welcome Om Puri), who has set up an engagement for her with a kind but straight-laced Muslim soldier Asif (Arunoday Singh). It’s an age-old, star-crossed lovers situation, rather lacking in originality – although Dayal works hard to exude as much charisma as possible. There are shades of Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham‘s Jess in Aalia’s anguish at her divided loyalties between her father and the man with whom she has fallen in love. It’s also an understandable, if slightly disappointing, plot device that can emphasise, a little heavily, the tumult and trauma of Partition on the people it most affected.
A triumph of British acting talent in supporting roles is provided by Michael Gambon as General Hastings Ismay, portrayed here as a rather careful and dubious member of staff, and a sympathetic Simon Callow as Cyril Radcliffe, forced to design the dividing line between India and the new state of Pakistan in just 40 days – despite having never before set foot in India. As he succinctly puts it, it’s “a bloody axe cleaving right through people’s lives.” There’s avoidance of any remote suggestion of a white saviour complex as the Mountbattens are revealed to be almost as in the dark as their subjects. They are victims too of a devious British government’s paranoia, as they try to please the opposing forces of pro-Pakistan Jinnah (Denzil Smith) and anti-Partition Nehru (Tanveer Ghani).
Away from the particulars of this history, and the elements of a British stiff upper lip, Chadha has produced a film that is an undeniable celebration of India and its culture – vibrant, stunning and joyful in its scenery, colour and soundtrack (provided by A.R. Rahman). There are lighter moments to enjoy throughout the film, including one with bickering librarians dividing stock in preparation for Partition: Chadha remains a queen of deploying humour to highlight the ridiculousness of otherwise painful situations.
Viceroy’s House tackles a fascinating topic, providing a history lesson on – and somewhat timely reminder of – possibly the biggest mass migration of people the world had ever seen, with around 14 million people uprooted and as many as one million killed in the ensuing sectarian violence. It is a deeply personal film from Gurinder Chadha, which doesn’t shy away from the brutality of Partition and yet still manages to find room for her trademark flair and gentle humour.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★