I like historical dramas which illuminate corners of history of which I am sadly unaware; such is the case with Viceroy’s House. This British – Indian – Swedish co-production describes in incredible detail the turmoil which occurred when Britain officially withdrew from India in 1947, leading to the partition of India and the birth of Pakistan. The film tackles this huge historical panorama on two levels: the “big picture,” wherein Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) attempts to pass control to India’s leaders — and fails, through no fault of his own — and the “personal picture,” which follows a young Hindi man, Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal) as he tries to win the heart of the Muslim woman he loves, Aaila Noor (Huma Qureshi), as they try to survive the resulting partition.
Gurinder Chadha’s film is a very personal project; her grandmother spent eighteen months in a refugee camp after India’s partition. That partition — a forced division of the country along religious lines — became the largest mass migration of people in modern history, and this film not only shows why it occurred but how people were affected by it, with fourteen million people displaced (and one of every fourteen dying as a result). The partition itself was a last resort, instituted because the three predominant social and religious groups in India — Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs — could not agree on how to accept the transfer of power and could not compromise. The film masterfully demonstrates how Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) argues for a new independent state for Muslims, refusing any arrangement by which the minority Muslims would be ruled by Hindus and Sikhs. Mountbatten, Jawaharian Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) are unable to sway Jinnah, and so history is made and Pakistan is born. The downside is that many of the people don’t take to the new order; violence erupts and the British military presence is unable, and perhaps unwilling, to quell the burgeoning strife.
Geopolitical elements are present throughout but only become urgent late in the story. Chadha’s focus is squarely on the people, and the absurdity of dividing the Asian subcontinent by an 80 – 20 split, extending to the governmental library and silver cutlery. Friends and families are separated by fear and mistrust, choosing to flee to imagined safety, only to find violence and death as a great nation undergoes a highly disruptive form of national mitosis. That both countries survived the crisis without destroying each other (more than they did) is rather amazing, and at least partly due to a continued (unofficial) British presence, coupled with as much material aid as could be provided.
Gurinder Chadha’s movie is a remarkable retelling of history, brought to vivid life with a welcome reluctance to embrace melodrama. The story itself is fascinating, especially to someone like me who was totally unaware of what really happened. It has obvious parallels to our own divisive culture, and can be seen as a cautionary tale of what could occur if we can no longer accept and respect brethren with differing views or beliefs. The acting is excellent and understated; the cinematography and A. R. Rahman’s music score are top-notch. For a view of global history from the relatively recent past with a distinctly human perspective, Viceroy’s House is a must-see movie. ☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2. 27 September 2017.