British director Gurinder Chadha’s arrival in Nottingham for a screening of Viceroy’s House was quiet compared to the din surrounding the film in recent weeks. While the Partition-era drama’s glossy publicity declares it a “stunning, gripping, intensely moving epic”, Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto launched a scathing attack in The Guardian, calling it “the film of a deeply colonised imagination” and a “servile pantomime of partition”. Most other opinions have ranged from the measured to the gushing.
“My film has been misinterpreted by some,” Chadha told Scroll.in. “But I don’t mind criticism. It has to be accepted, as well as praise, when you put something out there publicly.”
Viceroy’s House has been released in the United Kingdom on March 3 and will arrive in India on August 11. The movie begins grandly, with a Downton Abbey-style opening sequence focusing on the magnificence of the eponymous establishment and its teeming staff as the last Viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, takes charge. It quickly becomes clear, however, that this will not be a bird’s eye view but a fly-on-the-wall take on the story of Britain’s role in the Partition.
“I made this film from my own British-Asian perspective,” Chadha said at a question-and-answer session after the screening. “My being Punjabi, British, a woman, a mother – all this came to bear on it.” This is underscored at the end, with an account of her grandmother’s brief separation from her husband and children during the Partition. Chadha’s worldview and personality pervade the film and not just the climax. The Mountbattens, who may not have been as lovable as Chadha makes them out to be, exude the director’s own affability. The casting of the cuddly, bearlike Hugh Bonneville to play the lean (and by some accounts, mean) Mountbatten adds to that impression.
Chadha argued that she has shown Mountbatten to be “out of his depth, and quite a vain chap”. She said, “He is a puppet and a blunderer, but, on the other hand, they did stay on after Partition because they felt bad.”
Of Edwina, played by an appropriately posh Gillian Anderson, Chadha said, “She was seen, in footage from the time, helping tirelessly in camps.” A more accommodating approach to British history is not unnatural in one who, born and brought up in England, sees herself as both British and Indian. But has Chadha been as indulgent in her depiction of the Indian leaders?
“I didn’t want to vilify anyone,” she said.
If Jawaharlal Nehru, played by Tanveer Ghani, is theatrical, he’s also suave, and lands a blow or two for the Indian faction in the film, such as when pointing out to Mountbatten that the root of the religious violence engulfing the subcontinent was the British empire’s 300-year-old practice of “Divide and Rule”. Similarly, a badly made-up Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) is barely there, but he has his moments. He is shown as unrelenting in his fight for an undivided India, and if his goat curd offering rankled with some, his devastation at the end of the film is genuinely touching.
There isn’t much room for anyone else, as the Mountbattens’ domestic discourse and the labours of a pair of Hindu-Muslim lovers take centrestage. Yet this too was intentional. “The film deals with the last few months leading to Partition, and not the years of nationalist struggle before that,” Chadha pointed out. “Gandhi has already been sidelined by the time my film starts.”
It is Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) who is in the spotlight, and he is obviously not beloved. The uprooting of Chadha’s family from Pakistan, and her unabashed admission that this is a personal take, goes a long way towards explaining Jinnah’s portrayal.
The only glimmer of light comes through in Jinnah’s rueful observation that the British were the victors after all, as Pakistan gains independence to revelations of backroom deals between the Western powers. Chadha maintained that she portrays Jinnah thus for important cinematic reasons: “In order to introduce the twist at the end, I had to set up the conventional view of history. Just so I could debunk it later! We were always led to believe that Partition was India and Pakistan’s fault.”
Chadha pieced together a different story from Narendra Singh Sarila’s The Shadow of the Great Game, Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, and the British and Indian archives she explored with the help of Indian and Pakistani historians she had on hand.
To the charge that the Muslim dilemma has been depicted simplistically, Chadha countered, “I have used Asif and Om Puri’s characters to show both sides of their situation; how Muslims wanted and didn’t want Pakistan”. Puri plays Ali Rahim Noor, the father of the Muslim woman (Huma Qureshi) who is being wooed by Manish Dayal’s Hindu character.
Chadha also contested the claim of glossy superficiality – of plenty of icing and not enough cake. “I didn’t want to recreate the violence,” she said. “The archive footage I’ve shown speaks for itself. I wanted the feel and format of BBC’s popular show Upstairs Downstairs. I wanted to do it differently, to draw in those who knew nothing about Partition. I was not making a movie for experts on the subject.”
In that she has succeeded, if the audience response at the Nottingham screening was anything to go by. The Partition-challenged British and young British Asians left with a little more knowledge of the world beyond their limited school curriculum. And to those who know enough to pick holes, Chadha said, “The birth of India and Pakistan is a very emotive subject. You are bound to end up upsetting some people because everyone has opinions on it. I am confident I have made the best film I can.”