Gurinder Chadha is one of the best known British-Indian directors and certainly one of the most successful – having made movies like Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice to her credit. She has taken a more dramatic turn with her historical drama Viceroy’s House, looking at the end of the British Empire in India and the birth of India and Pakistan.
Viceroy’s House focuses on two stories: the first about the Mountbattens who arrive in India assigned with the impossible task to come up with a reasonable settlement for Indian independence in the space of a few months. The second focus is on Jeet (Manish Dayal), a Hindu man from the Punjab and a new staff member at the Viceroy’s House, who finds a Muslim woman, Aalia (Huma Qureshi) who he had fallen for years before.
Chadha’s films are known to feature themes about Indian people and the clash between British and Indian culture: Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging was a rare exception. It was easy to see why she would be drawn to this story setting and there was a personal meaning for her: Chadha’s family were affected by the Partition of India.
The Partition of India was a complex and controversial moment of history – leading to civil violence, thousands of people dead and millions displaced. Chadha and her writers, Paul Mayeda Berges (Chadha’s regular collaborator) and Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre, 2011) tried to be fair as possible – at least to the British side. Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is a man doing his best to come up with a satisfying solution when both sides refuse to meet each other. His wife and daughter (Gillian Anderson and Lily Travers) are shown to be interested in humanitarian work and argue that the British should do more to help the Indian population before they leave. Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), a high-ranking barrister, was also portrayed sympathetically, having only five weeks to draw up borders for the new states. Even the less sympathetic members of the British authorities are shown to care about the violence and bloodshed and have reasons why they act the way they do. Considering it would be easy to make the British blanket villains, it is appreciated that filmmakers showed that the picture wasn’t black-and-white.
This approach wasn’t taken when portraying the Hindu and Muslim political parties. The Hindus, led by the Congress and Gandhi argue that India shouldn’t be broken up, that Muslim fears of discrimination were unfounded and would be protected. Their argument is that the British want to divide India and make the people fight amongst themselves despite the fact that within India there are regional and language differences, let alone with Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) is shown to be a villain of the piece, a man who is so intransigent that it tears a country apart and brings violence to the streets and is made out to be a hypocrite because he fears Muslims would be persecuted in India, but Hindus and Sikhs would be okay in Pakistan. Jinnah also used the argument that Britain partitioned Ireland and Palestine as examples – which to anyone who knows history were not the best case studies. Chadha and her team project a troubling message – that Pakistan shouldn’t have been created. Aalia and her father are Muslims yet they are shown to want India to be united.
Viceroy’s House also tactics the geopolitical situation of the time – but it comes off so clumsily. The American ambassador offers the Congress the hand of friendship, but they rebuke it by saying why get rid of one colonial power to replace it with another – while the character Lord Hastings “Pug” Ismay (Michael Gambon) states in the most on the nose way possible about the British/Western strategic interests. It is even more remarkable because Ismay was considered to be more pro-Indian than pro-Pakistani. It’s all bad history.
Viceroy’s House is essentially an Indian set Upstairs, Downstairs or if you prefer a more modern example: Downton Abbey. It is a film that is looking at the lives of both the elites, their staff and how they interact. The Viceroy’s House setting is used as a microcosm of India during this time: there are British, Hindu and Muslims in the area, the British are struggling to keep law and order as ethnic and religious tensions flare up and Partition refugees come to the area. While Viceroy’s House fails with the political history it felt more authentic with its portrayal of the social issues.
As already mentioned Viceroy’s House attempts to show a more complex and balanced portrayal of the British. While the Jeet and Aalia star-crossed lovers storyline Dayal and Qureshi were decent enough actors to make the relationship engaging -and there was a twist because Aalia’s father (Om Puri) actually likes Jeet and her arranged fiancé (Hriiday Malhotra) is shown to be a good, caring man – making this segment more nuance.
Viceroy’s House is well intended and is similar to movies like Suffragette and A United Kingdom that aim to educate. However, it suffers from a heavy-handed screenplay that was more interested in telling facts than being a compelling movie – and it has a troubling interpretation of history.