24 March – 30 March 2017, DCA
“History is written by the victors”, reads the opening title card of Viceroy’s House, signalling the desire to question the accepted narrative of India’s partition in 1947. However, in seeking to expose the emotional reality through a Muslim/Hindu love story, this UK made costume drama remains severely rose tinted, taking little responsibility for Britain’s centuries of “divide and rule”.
The opening shot of a densely green Indian landscape contains odd protrusions of an opulent colonial palace. As the sun literally sets on the British Empires’ “Jewel in the crown”, a romantic and nostalgic string score accompanies the preparations by the ranks of servants inside for what is to be India’s last Viceroy. The mock sentimentality for the old days of order is quickly transformed into the excited whisperings of the staff anticipating their future, primarily by the proud manservant Jeet (Manish Dayal). It is his impossible love for fellow servant, Aalia (Huma Qureshi), which develops the emotional strand of the film, used to reflect the realities of the decisions being made by the upper floors in the house that engender increased tension amongst the Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in the serving quarters, played out in an upstairs downstairs manner akin to Downton Abbey.
The naïve, hopeful love story is paralleled by that of the respectful and well-intentioned Lord Mountbatten (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville) and his benevolent wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) who, as the force for good, seeks to incorporate Indian culture in the house, albeit in a painfully patronising way. Director Gurinder Chadha makes an effort to situate multiple points of view within this film, one of which is a redeeming portrait of the Mountbatten family who are fully exonerated by the later twist of whose pen drew the line through the map. They are even so kind as to try the Goat curd offered by the trivialised Ghandi, who is barred from much meaningful dialogue representative of his ideas or past achievements. After all, the reason given for the British withdrawal from India is that the war, i.e. Germans, exhausted them too much; there is no mention of Ghandi’s civil disobedience campaign or other acts of resistance which defeated them without a single bullet.
As the film delves deeper into the politics of the period, it cannot help but do further disservice to the history of India. The message given through the various dry meetings between Mountbatten and Indian leaders is that Jinnah, and the Muslim league, are the unreasonable force which are making this “damn job” so difficult. Worryingly anti-Muslim, the film attributes all acts of violence and unrest to them; the doe-eyed Jeet is the pure voice against the unreasonable and obnoxious Muslims in the staff, whilst Dilip, a Sikh valet’s village has been burned to the ground by Muslims. Divide and rule, the paradigm of the British Empire, is scarcely given any credence save for a self-satisfying reference to its implementation in Ireland and Palestine. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s finest orator and architect of the modern Indian state, is similarly patronised; reminded of his Cambridge education by Mountbatten and later slapped by an Indian man accusing him of “breaking the country”, all while the poor British try and keep a handle on the whole situation and are portrayed sympathetically in being charged to calm these bizarre, unexplained tensions.
The films emphasis on the fact that India and Pakistan were one people with millennia of history uniting them is not wrong, but it is secondary to the forces that divided India, the ones that Viceroy’s House is at pains to pardon. As Lady Mountbatten soothes her husband, “This tragedy is not of your making”.
Although the film attempts to redress the history of partition in its fidelity to written history and recent discoveries- that being Churchill’s influence in the plan to simultaneously guard British interests in oil in the region and block out Soviet Russia – it fails to strike a meaningful balance with the experienced history, which is undermined by its treatment of violence and use of faked newsreel footage alongside real footage of the largest migration in history. As a British film, sustaining the colonial mindset and denying much wrongdoing through a pale attempt at drama with a historical grounding, it continues to write history from the wrong side.