Viceroy's House is British-Indian historical drama film directed by Gurinder Chadha and written by Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini, and Chadha. The film stars Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, and Michael Gambon. It has been selected to be screened out of competition at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.
The film was released in the United Kingdom on 3 March 2017
On 30 April 2015, it was announced that Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson would star in the historical drama film Viceroy's House to be directed by Gurinder Chadha, which Chadha scripted along with Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini.The film set in 1947 during the Partition of India, and the life inside the Viceroy's House, would be produced by Chadha, Deepak Nayar, and Paul Ritchie. Pathé and BBC Films would be co-financing the film. On 1 September 2015, more cast was announced including Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Tanveer Ghani, Denzil Smith, Neeraj Kabi, Om Puri, Lily Travers, Michael Gambon, and Simon Callow.
Principal photography on the film began on 30 August 2015 in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India, where it was shot for eight weeks.
The film was released in the United Kingdom on 3 March 2017.
Chadha described the film as the Upstairs, Downstairs view of the Partition of India. She defended her film against criticisms of historical heterodoxy, guided by Narendra Singh Sarila's 2009 book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition, based on secret documents discovered in the British Library.
Viceroy's House review – soapy account of India's birth agonies
3 / 5 stars
Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson play the Mountbattens in Gurinder Chadha cheekily Downtonised but watchable version of history
Sunday 12 February 2017 18.45 GMT
Our time frame for leaving won’t work!” exclaims Lady Mountbatten, for a moment overwhelmed by the task of quitting India in 1947. Something familiar about that? As well as an enjoyably soapy and cheekily Downtonised view of history, director Gurinder Chadha could be offering a satirical stab at what Indexit meant to a country about to split into two as a punitive condition of liberty; maybe the UK will also have to contemplate partition of its own, north and south. With co-screenwriters Moira Buffini and Paul Mayeda Berges, Chadha creates a watchable costume drama from India’s birth agonies. And with its streak of subversive humour, it even reminded me weirdly of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon, about the division of Ireland.
Hugh Bonneville plays Mountbatten of Burma, brought in to oversee the running down of the union jack in India. (Maybe he can play Chris Patten if Chadha fancies a follow-up film set in Hong Kong.) He is a breezy, charming and clubbable Mountbatten, occasionally switching to stern rebuke in private in high Granthamesque style, but of course only with his own family or staff. Gillian Anderson is very good as Edwina Mountbatten, straining to repurpose her natural memsahibish hauteur into high-mindedly favouring India and Indians.
Tanveer Ghani is an excitable Nehru, and Denzil Smith is the cool and self-possessed Jinnah. Simon Callow is Cyril Radcliffe, the bewildered functionary charged with creating partition with his pen across the map, despite knowing nothing about the country. The late Om Puri gives a performance of great warmth as Ali Rahim Noor, a former rebel, once imprisoned, now blind. His daughter Aalia (Huma Qureshi) is on the viceroy’s staff and drawn into a Capulet-Montague love affair with a Hindu named Jeet (Manish Dayal) despite being engaged to a careerist Muslim who is partisan for the new state of Pakistan. This love affair is offered as an emollient to the geopolitical agonies of division that are playing out on the larger stage.
The movie is about the intrigue and gossip of the Viceroy’s House itself, the imperial seat of administration in Delhi and its microcosmic symbolism for the country as a whole. As the split dawns, the house and its contents are to be divided between the new states of India and Pakistan, including the silverware and the books in the library – India and Pakistan quarrel about who gets Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen.
The movie does not respond quite so readily to the tragedy of mass migration and massacres, an anguish whispered about at receptions and glimpsed on newsreels, at one move away from the tailored drama. (There is an interesting anachronism when the Ascot Gavotte from the musical My Fair Lady is played at an official soiree, music that was composed 10 years later: it could be an intentional, playfully surreal touch from Chadha.) The movie also does not touch on Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with Nehru, a subject still painful enough for the Indian government to have effectively objected to a planned movie on the subject, Indian Summer, which was to have starred Cate Blanchett as Lady Mountbatten.
Viceroy’s House may not have a whole lot of depth, but Chadha always shows her irrepressible and good-natured flair for storytelling, and sharp observational eye for the clenched unease of Britain’s patrician ruling class. The film is also interesting in that this is one of the very few historical dramas that shows Winston Churchill as the bad guy. Everyone knows about Churchill’s dig at Gandhi the “fakir”; this goes further and suggests Churchill’s bad faith in secretly contriving at partition as a self-serving trick.
Pakistan was avowedly created as a Muslim state to prevent the victimisation of a Muslim minority. But, as one character angrily remarks, divide-and-quit was a well established British technique in Ireland and Palestine (Cyprus lying in the future). And it could have been Churchill’s planned bishop sacrifice in the Great Game with the Soviet Union: the creation of a state distinct from the left-leaning India, more amenable to British interests and a strategic stronghold against the Russians. It is a line that Chadha has developed from Narendra Singh Sarila’s 2009 book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition. Meanwhile, Anderson and Bonneville show India’s outgoing first couple as increasingly disorientated and out of their depth.
At one stage, Lord and Lady Mountbatten earnestly promise each other that they will “stay on” after independence. Of course they didn’t, but it is a moment that recalls the expatriate melancholy of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. Viceroy’s House is no very profound work, but it is a nimble and watchable period drama.
Gurinder Chadha’s film is a glossy imperial version of India’s traumatic partition that scandalously misrepresents the historical reality
Gurinder Chadha’s Raj film Viceroy’s House begins with an ominous warning: “History is written by the victors.” It sure is. The empire and its descendants have their fingerprints all over this story.
Friday 3 March 2017 07.00 GMT
Viceroy’s House, the story of the Mountbattens’ arrival in India and the subcontinent’s subsequent breakup, opens to the sight of bowing, preening and scraping Indians at work on the lawns, carpets and marble floors that are to greet the last viceroy of colonised India, Lord Louis Mountbatten – or Dickie, as he was known – played by the rosy Hugh Bonneville. In one of his first scenes, Mountbatten instructs his Indian valets that he never wants to spend more than two minutes getting dressed – fitting for the man who dismembered India in less than six weeks. As always, it is the Indians, not the British, who fail in the simplest of tasks set out for them (they take 13 minutes).
The benevolence of the Mountbattens and, by association, the British Raj is laced throughout Chadha’s film. The second world war, we are told at the start by another pair of Indian valets, has exhausted the British and that is why they have “announced” they will be leaving India. There is no mention of the freedom struggle, Gandhian civil disobedience and resistance that brought the empire to its knees without firing a shot. Nor of the persecution and imprisonment of India’s independence leaders, successful economic boycotts of the industrialised British behemoth or the savagery and theft of imperialism (at least three million Indians died in the Bengal famine, a man-made disaster). It is simply that the British were “exhausted” – and that, too, by the Germans.
Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal), our resident Hindu valet – because Viceroy’s House is cognisant of India’s multiculturalism only in the way that census–takers and bureaucrats are, one Hindu, one Sikh, one Muslim, counting each group so they may assess their value as well as their threats – has arrived at the viceroy’s house from his former job as a police officer. He wastes no time in announcing: “Mountbatten sahib is a heroic man, he has freed Burma, and now he’s coming to free India.” Freedom is not something fought and won by Indians; it is a gift from the Mountbattens and the empire they represent.
At the same moment, the Mountbattens are descending through the clouds as Dickie looks out of an aeroplane window and bemoans the task ahead of him. “You’re giving a nation back to its people,” his daughter Pamela reminds him, as though India had been colonised by some other, alien force those past 300 years.
This theme is repeated throughout Chadha’s elegy to her former colonisers. “We have come to give India its freedom, not to tear her apart,” whispers Edwina Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson). As though it were the Nazis or the Ottomans who had held India and its people captive, subordinating their will and their liberty, for all these centuries. “How can it be getting worse under us?” Edwina asks, in a distress that would be genuine but for the insidious message cloaked behind every line in this unctuous and craven film: India’s suffering is India’s fault.
India’s revolutionaries and leaders are portrayed with a comic disrespect. Not once can they be counted on to hold a civilised conversation with each other (or even turn up to the same meetings) and are, in turn, sneering, smug and silly. Mountbatten spends the entirety of this film lecturing and condescending to finer men than he. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s finest orator and architect of the modern Indian state, is continually patronised by Mountbatten – who reminds every Indian leader he comes across that they went to Cambridge and that made them clever and Cambridge is in fact English, so thank you Great Britain.
It would be criminal to compare the two men’s intellect or vision, but it is always with a downward gaze that the subaltern is rendered in Viceroy’s House. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), the founding father of Pakistan, is scolded by the viceroy every time he turns up at his damn house and even Mahatma Gandhi – who, with rotten teeth is depicted like some mad old uncle – smilingly feeds the Mountbattens goat curd the first time they meet, as though that is the extent of his meditations at the time.
Britain gave us railroads, their language and cutlery (these people eat with their hands, Lady Mountbatten is warned as she announces her desire to entertain native guests at Viceroy’s House, the couple’s official residence). We would be mindful, as Chadha studiously is, to ignore the bloodletting.
Communal violence between Hindus and Muslims is spoken of by the Mountbattens and other Raj imperialists as though it were a cyclone, arriving in India from some unknown provenance, moved by an unknowable science. Divide and rule, a staple of British colonial administration, is given no credence. Three hundred million Hindus and Sikhs want a united India, she informs us via Raj interlocutors; it is 100 million Muslims who do not. Mirroring the fractures of modern nationalism wrought by India’s partition, Chadha seems to take pleasure in laying the bloodshed and brutality of 1947 at the feet of two particular villains: Muslims and Jinnah.
Jinnah is at his Bela Lugosi finest, dark circles around his eyes and his silver hair roguishly slicked back. To divide India is a tragedy, Mountbatten sighs, how can we convince Jinnah not to? Well, according to Chadha, you can’t. Jinnah, a successful barrister and leader of the Muslim League, is simply introduced to us as a “trouble maker”. The American ambassador, Mountbatten, Cyril Radcliffe (the man who drew up the new borders between India and Pakistan), every rotund and sweating Englishman lays the onus of partition at Jinnah’s feet, as though centuries of colonialism had been peaceful and joyful and British rule had not been built on a systematic and brutal communalism designed to pit brother violently against brother.
Not once do you witness any violence on behalf of India’s foreign rulers; they are serene and encouraging, weighed down with the heavy burden of soothing these wild, intemperate people. The valets, cooks and servants of Viceroy’s House can be counted on to turn viciously against each other, so much so that Mountbatten must convene a meeting. “No violence is tolerated in Viceroy’s House,” he reprimands the barbaric natives. By this point in the film, sadly, the audience cannot count on the director – or scriptwriters – to inform us that the very foundations of the viceroy’s residence were built on violence. The only Indians in this film are servants – or politicians – as though no other kind of subaltern existed. Chadha imagines this an innovation and has called Viceroy’s House the “Upstairs, Downstairs” of partition, as though there has ever been any other kind of Raj film. However, even Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi depicted the injustice, savagery and shame of the Raj more honestly than Chadha dares.
All the riots in Chadha’s film seem to be caused by Muslims. Riots in the Punjab interrupt the Mountbattens at a party and, though the disruption is delivered breathlessly, there is still time to announce that they have been carried out by Muslims. Dilip, a Sikh valet who spends the whole film fighting his countrymen instead of his occupiers, leaves to check on his village in the Punjab, only to return dusty and dishevelled. It’s gone, all of it burned to the ground by Muslims who, in this film, are always the perpetrators of violence, never its victims.
We have some brushes with symmetry regarding the violence that Muslims, like Hindus and Sikhs, also suffered, but they are all false alarms. Jeet’s love interest is Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim, and as they walk to her servants’ quarters one evening they find it set ablaze. Aalia’s home is filled with smoke and her blind father – played by the late Om Puri – isn’t there. Aalia is distraught and we, too, are gripped with fear. But don’t worry! Her father didn’t die; he’s just sitting at a neighbour’s house. No harm, no foul.
Pakistan is a place so nasty it even destroys Aalia and Jeet’s love when she is forced to migrate there (not even her strapping fiancé can thwart Jeet and her romance the way my country can). Towards the end of the film, Jeet is told that Aalia’s train has not made it to Lahore – Chadha’s begrudging mention of the ghost trains that left stations filled with migrants only to arrive at their destination filled with corpses. He has a bit of a cry, but, again, no need to worry! Aalia is alive. Muslims don’t die in Viceroy’s House. They are too busy killing, even their own.
Amid the chaos of partition, Chadha shows a kindly elder Sikh lady who has brought a Muslim woman to the police. The Muslim woman is black and blue. Her father, the old woman tells the cop, threw her under a train, but she would like to adopt her. The crudeness of this moment is painful and sad to behold. Even a (pointedly non-Muslim) stranger is more nurturing than a Muslim parent.
Chadha, who describes herself as a British Indian film-maker, was born in Kenya, but her family originally hail from Rawalpindi and Jhelum in what became Pakistan. Speaking in London ahead of the film’s release, Chadha described these cities as ending up on the “wrong side” after partition. I wasn’t aware there was a right or wrong side.
It is true that India and Pakistan were one people with millennia of history uniting us, but the forces that broke India and divided us are the very ones that Viceroy’s House is at pains to exonerate. “This tragedy is not of your making,” Lady Mountbatten warmly soothes her husband as the couple preside over the destruction of India.
Lord and Lady Mountbatten (in white at rear) celebrate India’s first independence day with prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 1947. Photograph: AP
As the fires of 1947 rage, the Mountbattens dress up in khaki kit and busy themselves feeding the fleeing poor (“Feed the children first!” Edwina cries) and breaking up bloody skirmishes between Indians. It was with a deep wound that I watched Chadha depict Jawaharlal Nehru being slapped by a fellow Indian for “breaking the country” while the British, who laid waste to our country, are celebrated for nothing and pardoned for everything.
The lie of this pernicious scene, wilfully ignorant of history if one is generous and purposely defamatory if one is not, points to a sorrowful truth: the psychological damage wrought by colonialism festers deeply among some south Asians.
Viceroy’s House betrays the profound inferiority complex that plagues colonised people, a trauma as severe as the physical assaults and violence done to the land and bodies of subjugated people. It is exactly this kind of thinking that infected those who rioted and murdered their compatriots – a sense of fully absorbing the coloniser’s claims of racial, moral and civilisational superiority. How else to explain the damage to the colonised psyche, whose imagination is so deeply corroded that it can believe that white skins are superior to brown skins, that the British are greater than Indians, that one religion prevails over another? It is in accepting these tragic untruths that nations are crippled with a paralysing fear of others and sincere loathing of the self.
Viceroy’s House is the film of a deeply colonised imagination. Its actors are collateral damage; no ill can be spoken of their talent or their craft. But as a south Asian I watched this film in a dark cinema hall and wept. This August will mark the 70th anniversary of the largest migration in human history. Fifteen million Indians were displaced and more than a million killed as the subcontinent was torn asunder. What value was freedom if it did not empower people to think without chains?
If this servile pantomime of partition is the only story that can be told of our past, then it is a sorry testament to how intensely empire continues to run in the minds of some today.
Fatima Bhutto is the author of memoir Songs of Blood and Sword and novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.
Gurinder Chadha: My film has been wilfully misrepresented as anti-Muslim
The director of Viceroy’s House argues that her film about India’s partition of 1947, far from ignoring the freedom struggle, celebrates it
Friday 3 March 2017 17.53 GMT
Fatima Bhutto, in reviewing my film Viceroy’s House, has every right to express her opinion about it. Everyone sees history through their own lens; some only see what they want to see. My film is my vision of the events leading up to India’s partition. It is not the first and it will not be the last interpretation, and I am delighted that it is provoking such heated public debate.
What saddens me is that a film about reconciliation should be so wilfully misrepresented as anti-Muslim or anti-Pakistan.
Viceroy's House review – soapy account of India's birth agonies
In reviewing my film, Bhutto makes a series of statements that are wildly inaccurate. I would normally let this pass – the audience will see from the very first scene that her description of my film is false. However, Bhutto seems intent on inflaming the racial and religious divisions that my film is intended to challenge, and it feels irresponsible to let that pass.
My film does not ignore the freedom struggle – it celebrates that struggle. (“The British empire brought to its knees by a man in a loincloth,” as Lady Mountbatten comments.) It does not ignore the colonial policy of divide and rule, but challenges it. (As Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru comments to Lord Mountbatten: “You have divided us and now you ask us for a solution.”) Above all, it does not show the Muslim community as sole perpetrators of violence.
In her most inflammatory allegation, Bhutto writes that the film depicts a Muslim father throwing his daughter from a train, only for her to be saved by a Hindu woman. She asserts that I do this to show that “a (pointedly non-Muslim) stranger is more nurturing than a Muslim parent”. In fact, what the film depicts is a Hindu mob attacking a train of Muslim families – the father pushes his daughter from the train to save her, not to kill her.
In making the film, I took infinite care to show that responsibility for the violence lay on all sides, and all communities were victims of the violence, irrespective of race or religion. Part of that process was to share the script and the film with many Muslim, Hindu and Sikh academics and historians to ensure that the scenes I depicted were a fair and reasonable representation of events.
I made Viceroy’s House so that this key moment in our shared British-Asian history – the 70th anniversary of the independence of India and the birth of Pakistan – would not be lost. The events of 1947 are largely forgotten in the UK, and they were and continue to be of huge importance. I do not for one minute expect every person watching the film to agree with my take on history. However, what alarms me most about Bhutto’s piece is that it plays straight into the hands of those who promote communal division – something that plagues India and Pakistan to this day.