Review: Viceroy’s House (2017)

Viceroy’s House (2017)

Directed by: Gurinder Chadha | 106 minutes | biography, drama, history | Actors: Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Manish Dayal, Simon Callow, Lily Travers, Om Puri, Huma Qureshi, Sarah-Jane Dias, Simon Williams, Marcus Jean Pirae, Samrat Chakrabarti, Roberta Taylor, Darshan Jariwala, Arunoday Singh, Lucy Fleming, Terence Harvey, Neeraj Kabic

Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is appointed Viceroy of India in 1947. He is thus the delegate of his cousin, King George VI, who as Emperor of India rules over hundreds of millions of subjects in the Indian subcontinent. Mountbatten himself was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and the uncle of Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II.

After the Second World War, the British Empire is on its last legs: the second destructive war within a generation has exhausted the country financially and mentally. The army has been depleted by all the casualties and under pressure from the United States, the European countries must grant their colonies independence after the war.
Mountbatten has been given the task of guiding the post-colonial period as best as possible: India must become independent according to a set time frame and must proceed as orderly as possible. Together with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson), he does his best to get the leaders on the ground – the governors, the maharajas and the representatives of various denominations – to follow the ideas of the British government. However, he runs into old rivalries and the deep religious rifts within India between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

His moderate course is shattered by a reality that cannot be steered. His chief of staff, Lord Hastings “Pug” Ismay (Michael Gambon), leaders Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) and Muhammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) are divided over the solution, with Jinnah sticking to the establishment of a new, independent state for the Muslim-majority provinces: Pakistan.

Meanwhile, one of Mountbatten’s personal servants, the young Hindu Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal), has run into an old flame again: Muslim Aalia Noor (Huma Quresi) comes to work for Lady Edwina. They know each other from the time when Aalia’s blind father Ali (Om Puri, in one of his last roles) was in prison for his political activities. Their love, crossing two faiths and cultural divisions, symbolizes the division. This fictional love story at the heart of the film feels a bit like a soap opera at first, especially with the experiences of the “upstairs” and “downstairs” residents of Viceroy’s House. It is a handy stepping stone for the filmmakers to give concrete form to the religious tensions in India, with the script and the actors ensuring that it remains believable and does not become disruptive.

‘Viceroy’s House’ provides a beautiful picture of the era that, certainly in the beginning, at times appears comical: the paternalistic and formal British who move into a culture that is not their own – in which they are the heavily outnumbered rulers. It makes sense for Indians to demand self-government through independence, and Mountbatten soon sees the need to speed up the timetable set by the government in London to stem the rising violence between populations. Mountbatten, nicknamed “Dickie” and Edwina do their best, but can’t get a handle on the escalating situation. Even within their own staff, emotions run high and different camps arise.

When the Muslim-majority provinces are allowed to break free to form Pakistan, mutual hatred really flares up: riots break out, militias are formed, resulting in mass killings and an orgy of violence and destruction across the country.

While Bonneville doesn’t really bear much resemblance to the real Mountbatten, he plays the part of the man who, as Ismay points out in the film, is able to talk a vulture off a corpse with his charm. Gillian Anderson plays the idealistic and empathetic Edwina Mountbatten with a flawless upper-class British accent. (Although the film omits the scandalous affair she had with Nehru). The supporting roles are heavily occupied, although there is little real chemistry between the love couple Aalia and Jeet. Gambon is reliable as ever in a crucial role as Ismay. The makers could have made it even clearer that Ismay was a confidant of Winston Churchill (Gerry George), who was his right-hand man for years. For Churchill’s shadow – at the time of independence in the opposition between his two stints as Prime Minister – hangs over subsequent events. Simon Callow also has a small but strong supporting role as Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man who has to draw the borders between India and Pakistan, but considers his task impossible.

Visually, ‘Viceroy’s House’ looks beautiful: everything was shot on location: the Viceroy House has since been renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan and now functions as the working palace of the President of India. The Viceroy’s House is almost a character in its own right in its majestic size and beauty. Another trick is that old newsreels are mixed with black-and-white scenes with the actors, so that the necessary historical context can be outlined and the viewer gets a picture of what is happening in the outside world. In the last part of ‘Viceroy’s House’ the film detaches from its setting in and around Viceroy’s House and we see the unimaginable suffering on a larger scale. The credits show that director Gurinder Chadha has a deep personal connection with the tragic and bloody separation of India. The human suffering this has caused is also almost incomprehensible: 1 million fatalities and many times that from people who were injured or driven from their homes. By focusing on one story, Chadha reduces it to human proportions.

It doesn’t appear in the film, but it certainly wasn’t the last time Mountbatten faced religious disputes: in 1979 his yacht off the Irish coast was blown up by the IRA, killing himself, a grandson and two others.

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