Stills courtesy of Pathe/Bend It Films
Gurinder Chadha (born 10 January 1960) is the most successful British Asian film director working in British cinema today. She shouldn’t just be an inspiration to women, but to men also. Best known for her football (soccer) comedy Bend It Like Beckham (2002), which grossed £11m on initial release in the UK (from a £3.5m budget) and $32.5m on its US release in 2003, she made her feature debut with the domestic abuse themed comedy Bhaji on the Beach (1993) and followed it with the BBC TV movie, Rich Deceiver (1995). Her other films include the American ensemble comedy, What’s Cooking (2000), an Anglo-Indian musical take on Jane Austen, Bride and Prejudice (2004), the teen comedy, Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008) and the black comedy It’s A Wonderful Afterlife (2010) as well as a segment from Paris, I Love You (2006). She frequently collaborates with her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, as co-writer and producer. She co-created the reality soap, Desi Rascals (2015) which ran for twenty episodes. The gap between the release of It’s A Wonderful Afterlife and the release of Viceroy’s House is seven years, the longest between films in her career. When I met her briefly in 2016, she had just turned in her first cut and explained that she had previously been barred from directing another British-Asian film because they wanted a more experienced director. She declined to mention the film, though The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel springs to mind.
Viceroy’s House is her most ambitious project yet. Filmed in eight weeks on location in Jodhpur, Rajasthan in India from 30 August 2015, with the Umaid Bhawan Palace standing in for the titular location, Rashtrapati Bhavan (‘President’s House’), President Modi’s residence in Rajpath, New Delhi, it stars Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) as Lord Louis Mountbatten, despatched to India to hand over the country to a government in waiting. The difficulty is that Hindus and Muslims are bitterly divided. The Head of the Muslim League, lawyer turned politician Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) seeks a homeland for Muslim Indians, Pakistan. Palestine was divided, why not India? Mountbatten who describes in the film his last assignment, Burma, as ‘hell on Earth’ is sent to build trust amongst the parties. For the group of British governors who turn up at Viceroy’s House on Day Two, violence is out of control; the British can’t get out of India quickly enough.
The film has three objectives: to show, in broad strokes, how partition took place; to let Lord Mountbatten off the hook as being the architect of the mass migration of 14 million Indians that resulted in the death of one million; and to make an entertainment that is palatable to Indian audiences as well as British ones. It moves constantly between events discussed in Viceroy’s House’s fine rooms and gardens and the point of view of the Indian serving staff who attend to the Mountbatten family and their guests.
It has been criticised for not explaining the British rulers’ role in the violence that swept the country. Who exactly was it that was forcing Muslim families to leave India – the result of the partition agreement – and Hindus, Sikhs and others to leave the area designated as Pakistan. It has a more fundamental dramatic problem: the constant shifts between points of view mean that empathy for the characters gets lost. The Indian romantic sub-plot between Mountbatten’s Hindu valet, ex-prison officer Neet Kumar (Manish Dayal) and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), Muslim assistant to Lady Pamela Hicks (Lily Travers), Louis’ youngest daughter, lacks the spark to make us care. The subject is too big for a one hour and forty six minute movie.
Perhaps the most surprising thing from an English point of view is that employees were allowed to strike their departing British rulers without any physical reproach. It is as if the British had fully accepted Indian anger and, after a minor ticking off, walked away from it. The film has other details that don’t sit right. When Louis meets Jinnah for the first time, Louis’ wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) is there to quote the Muslim League leader back to him. Would she have been in the room? Chadha wants to emphasise the pacifying role that Edwina played: she is shocked by the illiteracy rates (92%) and is keen to support improvement. She fires an English employee for claiming that the Indians get ‘too damned close’ and asks the kitchen to prepare more Indian fare. (‘All those years spent learning to cook their food – wasted,’ complains the sous chef in his own language.) Edwina explains that there will be an equal number of Indian guests to the British; the House will be more inclusive.
What of the role Lord Mountbatten played? According to the film, having had success in the recapture of Burma from the Japanese, the former commander of Allied forces in South East Asia was despatched to India as charismatic peace broker, one who when he first meets future Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and hears Nehru’s rancour about Indians imprisoned for undermining the British during World War Two, reminds him that he owes a debt to England for honing his debating skills (Nehru studied Natural Science at Trinity College, Cambridge). According to General ‘Pug’ Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon), Mountbatten could ‘charm a vulture off a corpse’. We don’t see Mountbatten’s famed brokering skills in action; rather, at various moments we see him ill-tempered and tetchy, snapping at Pamela when she calls him over to say she has been asked to be a bridesmaid at ‘Lillybet and Philip’s wedding’. Mountbatten’s response is immediately conciliatory; he is never shown angry for long.
The sub-plot, which is by far the least interesting part of the film and sits oddly with the virtual history lesson that Chadha and her co-screenwriters Berges and Moira Buffini give us, involves Neet attempts to win Aalia over after discovering that she is promised to another – her fiancé secures a job as Jinnah’s driver. Whilst Aalia’s blind father, Ali Rahim Noor (the late Om Puri) was in jail, Neet ensured that he was treated well. Ali has no idea that Neet loves his daughter. He asks him whether the girl whom he wants to marry has finally agreed. Neet looks at Aalia and replies, ‘no’. The film has buckets full of pathos along this line – Neet being unable to dance with Aalia as they are from different religious backgrounds. Conversations in Viceroy’s House between the couple are constantly interrupted as they assume a formal position standing next to one another when senior British people march past or when Aalia is asked by Lady Pamela ‘is everything all right?’
The ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude of the British is somewhat overdone, with two exchanges amounting to ‘don’t show them how we feel; mustn’t let the side down’. The most physical performance is given by Anderson. You become keenly aware of her dipped head, hunched but perfectly straight shoulders and clipped delivery. In contrast to Bonneville, Anderson is tightly controlled, oh so obviously acting and yet she is spectacularly convincing.
One of the more curious decisions is to cast Indian statesman with working class English accents. So Nehru, Jinnah and a tooth-depleted Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) sound odd, somewhat weaker and less charismatic than Mountbatten and a bit like miscast amateurs. Chadha appears to be making the point that the relationship between the British and the Indians is unequal. However, the decision weakens any attempt at authenticity.
Lord Mountbatten’s role as first Governor General in India (until June 1948) isn’t mentioned, though we do see Edwina countenance, ‘we must stay’. Perhaps the biggest liberty is the changing of the sign from ‘Viceroy’s House’ to ‘Government House’. I’ve no doubt this happened, but if Mountbatten remained Governor General, he didn’t move out straight away.
Moments of broad humour punctuate the film, from Mountbatten seeking to be dressed in two minutes (I won’t spoil the punch line) to Edwina and Pamela staring longingly at the chicken prepared for the dog before helping themselves. When partition is agreed, the contents of Viceroy’s House are split 80-20 between India and Pakistan, down to pots and pans and books in the library. India gets to keep Jane Austen, a reference to Chadha’s own Bride and Prejudice. When one of the Brits (David Hayman) is struck by an Indian, he complains that the place ‘is like Glasgow on a Saturday night’.
Overall, Viceroy’s House is uneven. It is made with attention to period detail and some historical accuracy and has a point to make about how partition was arrived at (I won’t spoil that either). Although there is newsreel footage showing privation, it doesn’t have a profound emotional impact. Rather it strikes a hopeful tone, although one it doesn’t earn.
Reviewed at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 4 March 2017, 20:15 screening