Historical films say as much about the times in which they were made as the times they depict. Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, detailing the months leading to the partition of India in August 1947 and (briefly) the humanitarian crisis it produced, is part of a current wave of films and television shows clogging our screens invested in portraying a Downton Abbey vision of England. A time when everybody knew their place and class relations were firmly rigid, Downton Abbey Britain (never mind ‘Brexit Britain’) is endemic throughout our culture at the minute. Nostalgia and myth are potent forms, after all.
In Chadha’s film, however, this retrograde fad is used somewhat opportunistically, to give the material melodramatic shape and mainstream audience appeal, rather than anything overtly culturally conservative or ghoulish.
The screenplay written by Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini is strongest when exploring the mire of identity politics, in-fighting and shady British dealings. The portrayal of Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) – the last viceroy of India – is far too kind, presenting him less as a chap spectacularly out of his depth, but a man ultimately duped by elements of government with an eye on protecting trade and oil routes. Wedged into this canvas of chaos and political manoeuvring between soon-departing Brit overlords, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh representatives, is a cheesy love story between two servants working in Mountbatten’s opulent gaff.
Like Titanic’s Jack and Rose, Aalia (Huma Qureshi) and Jeet (Manish Dyal) are star-crossed lovers forced apart by religious affiliation and the grander drama at play. Cutting between these two very different narratives – worlds even – doesn’t quite gel. Its ambition is to be both Gandhi (1982) and Titanic (1997). While it fails at both, it’s far from abject or a terrible film.
Bonneville and X-Files star Gillian Anderson (Lady Mountbatten) are the most instantly recognisable among the cast, Neeraj Kabi as Gandhi and Denzil Smith as Jinnah, the revered first leader and founder of Pakistan, played as a stone-faced man who learned his political wiles and incalcitrant stand from studying the British, are the stand-out roles.
Chadha’s Brits, in the main, are well-meaning enough and duty-obsessed, only Michael Gambon’s diplomat is a villainous type, but the director’s take on Empire isn’t so rosy. The rushed partition of India created the largest refugee crisis in history (some 14 million people). It was a time of great violence and displacement; many finding themselves on the wrong side of the dividing line and having to move away from their homes, families and communities because now things had changed in such a sweeping rush.
Viceroy’s House is at heart a tragedy about the politics of hate and division. Its message is strong and relevant to the world today, but it’s the delivery of an epic melodrama set against the backdrop of a country in existential crisis that is a mixed offering.