Director: 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 Kabi
Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is appointed Viceroy of India in 1947. He is thus the deputy of his cousin, King George VI, who as Emperor of India rules over hundreds of millions of subjects on the Indian subcontinent. Mountbatten himself was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and the uncle of Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband.
After the Second World War, the British Empire was on its last legs: the second devastating war within one generation drained the country financially and mentally. The army has been thinned out by all the victims and under pressure from the United States, European countries must give their colonies independence after the war.
Mountbatten has been given the task of guiding the post-colonial period as closely as possible: India must become independent along a set timeframe and must proceed as orderly as possible. Together with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson), he is doing his best to get the leaders on the ground – the governors, the maharajas and representatives of various movements – into the ideas of the British government. However, he runs into ancient rivalries and the deep religious rifts within India between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.
His moderate course ends in 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 creation of a new independent state for the provinces with a Muslim majority: Pakistan.
Meanwhile, one of Mountbat’s personal servants, the young Hindu Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal), has come across an old flame again: the Muslim woman 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, cutting across two beliefs and cultural divisions, symbolizes division. This fictional love story at the heart of the film feels a bit like a “soap” in the beginning, especially with the experiences of the “upstairs” and “downstairs” residents of Viceroy’s House. It is a useful 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 credible and does not become disturbing.
“Viceroy’s House” paints a beautiful image of the time that, at least in the beginning, appears comical: the paternalistically minded and formal Britons who enter a culture that is not theirs – although they are the heavily outnumbered rulers. It is natural that Indians demand self-government through independence, and Mountbatten soon sees the need to speed up the timetable set by the London government in order to stem the emerging violence between peoples. Mountbatten, nicknamed “Dickie” and Edwina try their best, but fail to get a grip on the escalating situation. Tempers are also running high within their own staff and various camps are emerging.
When it turns out that the provinces with a Muslim majority 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 throughout the country.
Although Bonneville doesn’t really bear much resemblance to the real Mountbatten, he plays the role 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 upperclass British accent. (Although the film omits the scandalous affair she had with Nehru). The supporting roles are very busy, although there is little real chemistry between the love couple Aalia and Jeet. Gambon is reliable as ever in a crucial role like 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 opposition between his two periods as Prime Minister – hovers over the later events. Simon Callow also has a small but strong supporting role as Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the man who must draw the borders between India and Pakistan, but
r considers his task impossible.
Visually, “Viceroys House” looks beautiful: everything was recorded on location: the Viceroy House has since been renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan and now functions as the working palace of the President of India. In its majestic size and beauty, the Viceroy’s House is almost a character in itself. Another trick is that old newsreels are mixed with black and white scenes with the actors, so that the necessary historical context can be sketched and the viewer gets an idea of what is going on in the outside world. In the final part of “Viceroy’s House,” the film becomes detached 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 India’s tragic and bloody divorce. The human suffering this has caused is also almost incomprehensible: 1 million fatalities and many times more people who were injured or driven from their homes. By focusing on one story, Chadha reduces it to human proportions.
It’s not featured in the film, but it certainly wasn’t the last time Mountbatten faced religious strife: In 1979, his yacht was blown up by the IRA off the Irish coast, killing himself, a grandson and two others.