Film Review: Viceroy's House
Directed by Gurinder Chadha
In cinemas from May 11
If you have been following the TV drama Indian Summers, you’ll be up to speed for a new instalment via the film Viceroy's House, directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham). Indian Summers spanned 1932-35 while Viceroy's House is set in a few crucial months of 1947.
It’s the story about the transfer of power from Britain to India and the partition of the country under the direction or lack of direction of the viceroy of the time, Lord Mountbatten.
At the time, India had been given a timeline for independence in June 1948 but due to the unrest between the conflicting demands and desires of the dominant Hindu and the smaller Muslim population, the changes were brought forward by several months with the creation of a separated Pakistan and India.
Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten is perfect. His training for the aristocracy as Lord Grantham in Downtown Abbey prepared him well. He conveys the man who has elements of both politician and strategist with a growing frustration of dealing with intractable social, historical and personal issues around the nature of Indian society.
Gillian Anderson, as Lady Mountbatten, does a fine job but at times seems to be trying just a bit too hard to get the accent right as well as the appropriate body language. Chadha uses her to portray a more understanding perspective on the British attitudes to India, requesting the chefs provide more local dishes and dismissing one of her assistants for expressing anti-Indian views.
She provides a fine foil to her husband, displaying a more human and responsible approach to the problems. There is only a hint of what many believe was a relationship with Nehru whom she admired and there is no reference to her wild social life in the 1930s.
Several of the plot lines and scenes reinforce the ideas of a conflicted India along historical, religious, ethnic and geographic lines. Partition is both a way of resolving the problems as well as entrenching them.
One scene late in the film exemplifies the approach of the bureaucracy to partition when the contents of the viceroy's house must be split in the ratio 80-20 between India and Pakistan. These assets included knives and forks, furniture and even books the books in the library
While the good of India is said to be the main aim in resolving all the issues there are other more geopolitical issues entwined with the various subplots such as the secret Partition Plan which Churchill had drawn up many years before which sought a European/western-inclined Pakistan to counter the leftist government of Nehru.
The film uses the actual viceroy's house, now the Indian president’s residence as well as other local palaces for the elaborate background to the action. The Lutyens-designed house and gardens are vast and impressive (apparently larger than Versailles) with a staff of several hundred and a collection of byzantine government officials
Manish Dayal as Jeet Kumar, a Hindu young man, and Huma Qureshi, as his Muslim love interest, provide the personal and parallel story line to the state of affairs in the country as they too are eventually separated by partition.
There is a host of mainstay British actors for the government bureaucrats including Michael Gambon as Lord Ismay, Mountbatten’s chief of staff, who is a walking symbol of the off-screen British government.
Denzil Smith as Jinnah, Neeraj Kabi as Gandhi and Tanveer Gahni as Nehru look like the real historical figures and are more than just one-dimensional characters.
AR Rehman’s musical score interweaves Western and Indian sounds and there are some interesting inter-communal celebrations (with a touch of Bollywood), emphasising the fact that many in the mixed communities were able to live in harmony.
Although the film is largely a political bio-pic Chadha has provided an honest historical account of the period along with creating characters with strong personalities, striking a rich emotional vein and a thoughtful approach to the issues. It captures the sweep of history along with the lives of the ordinary and extraordinary people who make history.