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VICEROY'S HOUSE Film Review
Directed By Gurinder Chadha
Genre: Drama - History
In VICEROY'S HOUSE Gurinder Chadha captures the sweep of history in the fraught months that led up to the violent partition of India at the end of British rule in 1947. It’s also a deeply felt personal story for the director. Her family was one of the 14 million Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims displaced in the world’s largest ever migration when, with only a few weeks’ notice, people were forced to choose whether to live in independent India or the newly formed Muslim state of Pakistan. And the end credits reveal the true story of Chadha’s grandparents that inspired her film.
VICEROY’S HOUSE starts with wide panning shots showing the grandeur of the building and its luxuriant grounds and gardens, the seat of government in Delhi, so magnificent it “makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow”, kept functioning by its many hundreds of indoor and outdoor staff wearing striking red and white uniform in their own cultural styles.
Into this uber-Downton Abbey opulence, Lord Mountbatten (sturdy Hugh Bonneville) and his wife and daughter emerge from grim post-war Britain’s rationing and deprivation to take over as Viceroy and to be responsible for the handover of power. Affable and amiable, instructing his team of ceremonial dressers in the miracle of the new zip fly, Mountbatten is there for his powers of persuasion – he is described as being able to “charm vultures off a corpse”. His wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson, unrecognisable with a superb cut-glass accent) is more concerned with wanting to improve the social and economic problems that she discovers on her arrival. His daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) is shown as supportive and, in fact, now as Lady Pamela Hicks, was a consultant on the film.
This establishment family have an overwhelming sense of decency and of not wanting to let the side down, and Chadha presents them in a sympathetic light as individuals. It becomes clear that in the ensuing ‘Mountbatten Plan’, Mountbatten came to be held responsible for disastrous events which he did not know at the time had already been decided long ago and far way away by the British government. The tragedy and the absurdity of what happened is summed up by the fact that drawing up the lines on the map that were to divide the two countries was left in the hands of a civil servant (a flustered, pedantic Simon Callow) who had never previously visited the Indian continent.
Mountbatten had a “monstrous responsibility” and ended up wielding the “bloody axe that cleaved through people’s lives”. Relationships in the VICEROY’S HOUSE start to change with a taste of things to come as the Indian staff lose their enforced deference as independence looms and the old regime falls apart. And as well as many human tragedies, the sudden partition brings other absurdities such as dividing up the volumes of the encyclopedia in the VICEROY HOUSE library between the two countries, dividing up the canteens of cutlery in the kitchen – implicitly making the point that each half is pointless without the other.
Against epic political machinations between Mountbatten, slippery British politician Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Jinnah (Denzil Smith) that decided the fate of millions, Chadha counterpoints the rather soapy tale of two lovers in VICEROY HOUSE. Jeet (Manish Dayal) is a Hindu recruited to Mountbatten’s personal staff and Muslim Aalia (Huma Qureshi) is seconded to help Pamela. Their Romeo and Juliet story symbolises the religious divide that is splitting the country. Added to the mix are visits to Mountbatten from Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), a ravaged Om Puri in one of his last films as Aalia’s blind, former-dissident father and the return of Aalia’s fiancé, a former soldier now promoted to be Jinnah’s driver.
There’s an undeniable contemporary resonance to these events – for instance, Britain’s too-short time scale for leaving India, which those charged with enforcing it knew wouldn’t work, the lack of consultation, planning and foresight in dealing with the repercussions of the decisions both to leave and then to split the country. It all sounds horribly familiar and Chadha’s take is subtly satirical.
VICEROY’S HOUSE is very well made, watchable and enjoyable, as are Chadha’s previous films such as Bhaji on the Beach, Bend it Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice. It gives an intriguing and informative background to very important historical events, suggesting the real reasons behind Britain’s creation of Pakistan and presenting Churchill in a rare, questionable light. Its co-screenwriters are Moira Buffini and Paul Mayeda Berges, and it makes good use of A. R. Rahman’s atmospheric score, even fitting in a brief dance scene.
VICEROY’S HOUSE is in Cinemas 3rd March 2017
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