Gurinder Chadha has attributed her new movie Viceroy’s House to various sources: the experience of the filmmaker’s family members during the Partition that accompanied Indian Independence and the birth of Pakistan; Narendra Singh Sarila’s 2006 book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition; and the 1970s British television series Upstairs, Downstairs, which examined events in the early 1900s through the differing experiences of the masters of a townhouse and their domestic staff.
Another source is the Bollywood-style romance, with its penchant for coincidences and contrivances, its championing of the theme of love against the odds, and the simplification of complex historical processes by presenting them through individual experiences.
Hugh Bonneville plays a stockier and less dapper version of Louis Mountbatten, who arrives in Delhi in the midst of immense tensions over the prospect of Partition. Accompanied by his razor-sharp wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers), Mountbatten settles down at the official residence of the title and gets down to navigating the treacherous waters of Indian politics. He warms to Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and is charmed by Mohandas Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), but is cold towards Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith). Edwina and Nehru exchange one particularly long and meaningful look, and that’s it.
The Mountbattens’ well-documented animosity towards Jinnah colours the movie’s perception of the founder of Pakistan, making him the villain in this Bollywoodised version of history. Jinnah comes off poorly, but he isn’t the only poorly sketched character. Nearly every historical figure gets short shrift as Chadha and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini attempt to strike a balance between the gentry upstairs and the liveried downstairs staff who wait on them.
In the staff are Jeet (Manish Dayal), who reunites with his former lover Aalia (Huma Qureshi) at the Viceroy’s residence. He is Mounbatten’s manservant, while she is a translator for the missus. They are forever ducking into corners and exchanging heated looks and intense conversations as various dignitaries bash out the details of the plan to divide India. The twinning of forces – one overarching and the other intimate – is clumsily handled, resulting neither in a satisfactory examination of the workings of Mountbatten’s brief tenure as the last Viceroy of colonial India nor a passionate romance between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman.
The sumptuously produced movie has also been released in a Hindi dubbed version called Partition: 1947. Making the British actors speak in Hindi takes away from the linguistic divide between the rulers and ruled in the Indian version. The estimable cast, which includes Michael Gambon as the scheming Hastings Ismay and Simon Callow as Cyril Radcliffe, turn in functional performances, while the romantic leads strain to be convincing about their mutual ardour.
Viceroy’s House is ultimately a halfway house: it barely functions as an expose of the arbitrary manner in which borders were drawn between India and Pakistan, and doesn’t provide a satisfactory ground-up view of how the Indian employees regarded their soon-to-depart rulers. We know enough about the upstairs from numerous accounts of Indian independence. The movie should have stuck with the downstairs.