Viceroy’s House movie cast: Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manjit Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Om Puri, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow
Viceroy’s House movie director: Gurinder Chadha
Viceroy’s House movie rating: 2 Stars
The summer of 1947 was especially hot, “hottest in 75 years”. One man who had never set foot in India before was brought in his double-breasted suit to work with a team and, in five weeks, draw a line dividing the country into two. He sweated and protested his way through it, as the likely bloodshed his actions would wrought played out on the streets.
If only Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Callow) was the story.
As the countdown to the Partition began, among the things to be apportioned, in the ratio of 80:20 between India and Pakistan, were the cutlery, musical instruments, and books at Viceroy’s House.
If only the division was the story.
As the well-meaning Mountbattens, “who everyone liked”, realised the impossibility of the task they had been handed, they hastened the British exit in the deluded hope that it would end the violence.
If only the Mountbattens’ delusion was the story.
Rather, the Viceroy’s House, on one of the world’s greatest tragedies, one that holds personal pain for Gurinder Chadha — one of her aunts starved to death in the mass migration — is like a stilted play, that at its best stirs itself up to an insipid British TV costume-drama. If drama can be used for it.
Given the scale of the Partition, it perhaps wasn’t a bad idea to tell it through the viceregal mansion (now Rashtrapati Bhavan), which lay at the start of that line. However, Chadha isn’t just content with a political drama. Her film deploys all: an Upstairs Downstairs (the TV show) kind of look at the outgoing British rulers, and their still obedient Indian servants, now divided along religious lines; instant history lessons through one-liners thrown in at intervals (“divide and rule” etc); and, most incongruously, a passionless love story between a Hindu man (Manish Dayal) and a Muslim woman (Huma Qureshi) employed in the service of the Mountbattens. As if the tragedy of what was playing out outside wasn’t enough to drive the story. There is even a third angle to that affair: the woman’s betrothed, who happens to be Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s driver.
Even if Chadha had been able to piece together all the things she is juggling here, along with an impressive Gandhi, a flailing Nehru and a casual Jinnah, who drop by at times, Viceroy’s House could have had a chance. However, the three strands, along with the strained staff of the Viceroy’s House, never gel. Once in a while, the director also turns her attention to the Mountbattens, who make for a more compelling story, if only because Anderson, despite that forced gait and walk, portrays Edwina as the only one aware of how their name is going down in history.
But is history really on Chadha’s mind? A document pulled out of a drawer, showing a Partition plan as far back as 1945, blamed on Winston Churchill, as a British grand design to contain the Soviets, is passed off as “real fact”. It waters down even that diluted effort at Nehru/Jinnah/Gandhi clash, making Partition inevitable, that Viceroy’s House makes earlier.
The film wisely declares ‘history is written by the victors’. The above Churchill ‘factoid’ is taken from a little-known book by a former Indian diplomat, Narendra Singh Sarila, who was once a junior member of Mountbatten’s staff. Well, Churchill did lose the 1945 elections.