Viceroy’s House: More personal than historical
The film works at some level only if viewed as a part-personal, part-historical narrative. There could be disappointment in store if seen primarily through the prism of history
Any artistic representation of the Partition is bound to get people het up. It is one of those subjects that is far too complex for everyone to be kept content. Chadha’s most recent venture is Viceroy’s House, which she bases on two famous books on India’s Independence: Freedom at Midnight (by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre) and The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition (by Narendra Singh Sunila). Though the film is nowhere near as powerful as Khushwanth Singh’s Train to Pakistan or any of Manto’s famous stories of the period, it does make for interesting viewing. It is not even as poignant or crushing as Deepa Mehta’s 1947: Earth, but the project makes a fair fist of weaving the personal, political, and historical into the narrative of India’s freedom struggle. On an acting front, Viceroy’s House aces the show. On the historical front, however, it isn’t as spectacular. The Mountbattens, consisting of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Dickie, to the ones who know him well), Lady Edwina Mountbatten, and their daughter, Pamela, arrive in India to oversee the transition of power. The last Viceroy and his family, are portrayed to be a little too empathetic to India’s cause; often being at loggerheads with the rest of the condescending Raj. Dickie plays host to a number of Indian revolutionaries of the day to discuss Britain’s exit terms, and address the growing restlessness among the country’s Muslims for a separate State. The Viceroy jokes with his old pal Nehru, and placates Gandhi and Jinnah alike.
Director – Gurinder Chadha
Cast – Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Michael Gambon, Om Puri
The staff at the house is presented in as realistic a manner as possible. Amidst all the paying of obeisance, there is Jeet, who has come highly recommended to serve the Lord personally. Aalia has been hand-picked to assist his daughter. A chance meeting establishes some history between the two. As their story begins to unravel, a mounting discontent is being witnessed in the multi-ethnic environment at home. The Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs get distrustful of one another. Even as all the politicking takes places behind closed doors, with the English attempting to assuage the fears of all the big Indian representatives, Jeet is seen taking up for Mountbatten sahib, calling him a “good man.” Even as the Mountbattens preach peace and harmony to their extended household of chefs, footmen, and maids, they are being strategically manipulated by Churchill & Co. to take the fall for all the carnage and displacement to come.
In the parts involving the Indian characters, I would have liked to see more use of the vernacular. There is a smattering of Hindi and Punjabi thrown in there, but English dominates almost all the exchanges. Even when Aalia speaks to her blind father, not once do they break into the mother tongue. Chadha succeeds in showcasing the deep-seated evil that colonialism brings; where the subjugated people will turn on each other first, before they will on their oppressors. The Mountbattens’ benevolence, however, did come across as a bit too much. While I do understand that the film is part-personal and part-historical, the violence and subsequent lack of British intervention during the partition cannot be stressed enough. The bloody exodus that marked the start of Independence does make it to screen, but more emphasis and less grandstanding (of the Mountbatten family’s role) was the need of the hour. The great Indian women of the struggle could have also found more of a place in the storyline. Apart from Edwina’s passing mention of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, as Nehru’s sister, little is seen of them. If you treat Viceroy’s House as Gurinder Chadha’s take on the Partition, Independence, and the Mountbattens, it works at some level. If you view it purely as a historical film, though, there could be disappointment in the offing.