Viceroy’s House – Film Review by Frank L.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha
Writers: Paul Mayeda Berges (script), Paul Mayeda Berges
Stars: Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Hugh Bonneville
The granting of independence to India was an event which took place, with remarkable haste, in 1947 after the ending of the second world war. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire but there was little doubt that it had to be granted independence as it was becoming ungovernable. It had a large minority Muslim population which feared how a majority Hindu and Sikh government would treat them following independence.
Lord Mounbatten, a distant cousin of the royal family and a hero of Burma in the war, was given the task of delivering independence by the new Labour government in London. He was not long in situ when he determined that the time table needed to be dramatically shortened and that independence was to take place on 15th August 1947. He also came to the conclusion that the only solution to the racial mix was partition even if it had a limited chance of success.
Gurinder Chadha sets the events of Summer 1947 in Lutyens mind bogglingly vast Viceroy’s House in Delhi with its five hundred plus servants to look after the needs of the viceroy and his family. It is a world of imperial splendour that is hard to comprehend today. Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is portrayed as a slightly bumbling figure who has been sent out to deliver a plan the important parts of which had already been secretly determined in Whitehall. Countess Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson) is a memsahib of some considerable hauteur but with a strong grasp that the future of India lay with the Indians alone. The minor characters are played by a host of stars including big names such as Michael Gambon, Simon Callow and Om Puri which intensifies the overall depth of luxury of the piece.
The events are told at two levels: the machinations of high politics with the conflicting wishes of Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi on the Indian side and the retreating lack of confidence of Mountbatten, General Hastings Ismay and the hapless Sir Cyril Radcliffe on the British side; the parallel story is the burgeoning romance between a Hindu and a Muslim girl who both worked in the Viceroy’s House. Chadha cuts and splices these two stories throughout the film. In addition to keep the audience aware of the violence happening in the cities, towns, and villages contemporary newsreels of the increasing chaos is shown. The newsreels are like a Greek chorus to the two stories.
The dislocation of 14 million individuals and a million dead are mentioned. However the primary focus is on the events in the Viceroy’s house where the contents (including the cutlery and the musical instruments) are divided between India and Pakistan on an 80:20 split. Problems arose in the library with the distribution of the Jane Austen and the Brontes’ novels!
To choose the brief period of Mountbatten as Viceroy of India as the instrument to tell the story of India’s fight for independence inevitably is going to result in a vast amount of material being squeezed out. As the world of the Sahib and the Memsahib was swept away on 15th August 1947, the sheer glamour of the trappings of the Raj evokes a nostalgia. Chandra makes a brave attempt to contain that nostalgia with snippets of the reality for the millions who suffered.
It all leads to questioning the decision to tell the story of the final days leading to Indian independence from the headquarters of the Raj. It somehow diminishes the importance of the birth of the world’s largest democracy – India.