Bringing a touch of Downton Abbey period gloss and Indian love story to the tragic events of the 1947 Partition of India, Viceroy’s House is one of Gurinder Chadha’s more engaging dramas.
By Jas Pandohar
Summarising the complexities surrounding the Partition, Chadha offers a pared-down version of the events that led to the greatest refugee crisis the world has ever seen. An estimated 14 million people were displaced and up to a million died when the British carved a piece of India to create Pakistan; something very few people are still aware of. Viceroy’s House helps throw light back on a dark issue.
Who better than Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville to play Lord Mountbatten, tasked with the duty of handing the Jewel in the Crown back to its Indian citizens after centuries of British rule? Appointed the last Viceroy of British India, Mountbatten is sent with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela to Viceroy’s House, the resplendent 340-room palace in New Delhi that has served as India's seat of power for over a century (now known as Rashtrapati Bhavan – presidential residence).
Here they witness at first hand what India has become. Reports of sectarian violence flood in from the regions while mandates from Hindu leaders Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) and Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) with their pro-Pakistan challenger Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) make Mountbatten’s job a nightmare. No one sees eye-to-eye on how independent India should be governed.
With thousands of lives being lost through bloodshed, the Viceroy is forced to hasten his independence plan by a year. Enter Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow) a high-ranking London lawyer who has never set foot in India. The job of mapping out the new frontier between India and Pakistan has been dumped on him. Guided by the shady General Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon), a diplomat and military advisor to Winston Churchill during World War II, Radcliffe soon realizes the magnitude of his task and the dire consequences it has for a population of 400 million.
Caught in the crossfire are the 500 Indian servants who labour downstairs at Viceroy’s House. When whispers of a potential partition begin to surface, divisions quickly form between the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim workers. It’s into this mix that Chadha stirs in a sub-plot involving the clandestine romance between Edwina’s Muslim assistant Aalia (Huma Qureshi) and Mountbatten’s Hindu valet Jeet (Manish Dayal). Will their faith mean more to them than their love when they decide which side of the border they want to live in?
Chadha’s impressive ensemble cast bring to life not only the high profile political figures associated with this era, but also the very people who are often overlooked; the Indians who lived through that tumultuous time. Chadha cites her grandmother’s story as an inspiration for making what she calls her ‘People’s Partition’. It's a story she had to tell and is seven years in the making.
Bonneville and Anderson put in sterling performances as the Mountbattens, offering a caring couple who are loosen their British stiff upper lip in an attempt to do right by the Indians. While they and the British Empire come out of the film looking a tad rosy (they apparently tried their best to leave in an orderly fashion but were rushed for time), it's their Indian servants who get deserved screen space. Their sense of duty, confused loyalty and courage displayed during this traumatic period of history is commonly forgotten and aptly showcased by Chadha.
Delhi born actress Qureshi holds her own as Aalia, doing her best to tend to her mistress’s needs while looking after her blind father played by Om Puri. Puri’s touching cameo appearance is a poignant reminder of the late actor’s immense talent. While only on screen for a few short scenes, he leaves you wanting more.
Unfortunately, Aalia and Jeet’s love story fails to come to fruition, mainly due to the mismatched pairing. Dayal’s dashing looks and Qureshi’s mature demeanor don’t quite gel. It's a simple case of lack of screen chemistry. More worrying is the caricature of Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi who serve to deliver clichéd dialogues by way of explanation of the dilemmas and demands of their followers.
Genuine interest instead comes in the form of Chadha and her co-screenwriters’ discovery and usage of recently uncovered evidence that Winston Churchill drew up partition plans behind closed doors well before Mountbatten was given the job. It was apparently an attempt to protect British oil interests and India against Soviet meddling.
Overall Viceroy’s House is a worthy watch, albeit a bit soapy in style. It has appeal for those interested in costume dramas and a period in history with personal resonance to millions of Indian and Pakistani Diaspora.
Viceroy's House releases in cinemas on March 3rd.
Watch our interview with director Gurinder Chadha.