In 1947, British-Punjabi film maker Gurinder Chadha’s own grandparents became part of the post-Partition diaspora. As Sikhs, they had to leave their village in the foothills of the Himalayas because it lay within newly-created Pakistan. In Viceroy’s House, Chadha sets out to depict the effects of Partition on people like them, whose lives were thrown into chaos by the arbitrary division.
The film begins in Delhi with the arrival of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), whose task is to negotiate the terms and conditions of granting independence to India no later than June 1948. Despite his hopes for a united India, Mountbatten soon realises that Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Mohammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) will not reach agreement, with the latter leader insistent on a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. The longer the stalemate lasts, the greater is the chance of civil war erupting.
Influenced by General Ismay (Michael Gambon), Mountbatten brings the deadline forward to August 15, 1947 in the hope of forcing a compromise.
While Mountbatten, his advisors and the Indian leaders are sweating it out upstairs in the palatial Viceroy’s residence, downstairs in the kitchen and corridors the Indian staff and servants are anxiously discussing and debating the ramifications of whatever snippets of information they can glean. Keeping her ears tuned to both the official and unofficial discussions is Lady Edwina Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson), whose astute sense of social justice takes her into the community, where she exhibits considerable empathy with the Indian people.
A budding romance between Mountbatten’s Hindu valet, Jeet (Manish Dayal), and Aalia (Humar Kureshi), a Muslim translator for the Viceroy’s daughter, Pamela (Lily Travers), exemplifies how the prospect of Partition is heightening divisions already present within the Indian community. As negotiations upstairs stall, so too does any prospect of future happiness for the lovers.
The screenplay, co-written by Chadha, her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, and Moira Buffini, is strongly influenced by the account written by Narendra Singh (Mountbatten’s former aide-de-camp), in his book, The Shadow of the Great Game. Singh suggests details of Partition were conceived well before the 1947 negotiations and were designed to best serve British military and strategic interests.
Far from being portrayed as the heartless architect of an arbitrary Partition destined to cause violence, bloodshed and heartache, Mountbatten is depicted as having been cynically manipulated by General Ismay and like-minded old hands.
Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), the barrister sent out to officiate on behalf of the British establishment, is so appalled at the callous haste and disregard for consequences of Partition that he later refuses to accept his fee. It is only when his request that the case be referred to the United Nations is denied that he realises the extent to which he and Mountbatten are being used.
India might have gained Independence but Partition heralds a period of unspeakable carnage during which one million people die. While Chandha does not overly dwell on the horror of this period she does use it as the background for the final chapter in the love story between Aalia and Jeet.
She then closes the film on a personal note as she briefly introduces photographs of her grandparents, who were amongst the 14 million people displaced from their traditional homes.
Viceroy’s House looks amazing, with some exterior scenes shot outside the former Viceroy’s House, now the President’s residence, Rashtrapati Bhavan. Interior scenes were shot in a wing of the Umaid Bhawan Palace, which is now a luxury hotel. The entire cast gives utterly credible individual performances in portrayals of the historical figures.
This is an absorbing and provocative film.