An upstairs-downstairs portrait of Indian independence and Partition, Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House is a history lesson with a big heart.
The Wallby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
As the credits reveal, the story of Viceroy’s House is also a very personal one for Gurinder Chadha. And there couldn’t be any better timing for Chadha’s tale of India’s independence and Partition from Pakistan. The film is dedicated to the million lives lost in the greatest human migration this planet has ever seen, with 14 million Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims making the long journey from India to Pakistan and vice versa. For the most part however, set within the confines of the Viceroy of India’s residence as Viscount Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) takes over the reins in order to usher in India’s new era of independence.
Ably assisted by his wife Edwina, in a magisterial turn by a stooped Gillian Anderson, Mountbatten brings in a new order, receiving 50% Indians at their functions and sending back to Blighty any staff unfit to make friends with the locals. And it’s probably the Mountbattens that fare best from Chadha’s film. The viceroy meets with Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah and brokers an agreement for partition to avoid further violence, soon to be known as the Mountbatten plan. But unbeknownst to him, the patsy of Churchill’s wartime plan.
The Indian perspective is drawn through the viceroy’s legions of staff, in particular the star-crossed lovers Hindu Jeet (Manish Dayal) and Muslim Aalia (Huma Qureshi), caught on the wrong side of religion, Partition and an arranged marriage. Eavesdropping on the politics forged behind closed doors, there’s soon a tension simmering between Muslims and Hindus in the kitchens and hallways of the Viceroy’s house. But this upstairs-downstairs structure lends a very British sensibility to Chadha’s story, only counterbalanced by its overly melodramatic romance and the quashed hope of a Bollywood routine.
But it’s not until after Independence that this Romeo and Juliet relationship comes into its own, as a poetic symbol for a united India, surviving betrayal, disappointment and massacre. Occasionally veering into history by numbers – stuck in a dialectic of British action and Indian reaction – nevertheless, Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House ultimately makes for an illuminating and entertaining depiction of the most important moment in British Indian history.
Viceroy’s House is released on 3rd March 2017 in the UK