I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
In 1947, Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, cousin to King George VI, was sent to India as its last viceroy, to rule in George’s stead — he was Emperor of India, of course — and to facilitate that nation’s transition to independence. And as depicted in Viceroy’s House, Gurinder Chadha’s snappy and later snappish drama about the handover, Mountbatten is initially a rather cheery midwife to the end of the British Empire. Hugh Bonneville (Paddington, The Monuments Men) brings a certain bonhomie to a man described as someone who “could charm a vulture off a corpse,” and Dickie and his wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson: Sold, Hannibal), seem confident that their great white Western beneficence will ensure a smooth path to freedom and progress for the people of India.
Of course, it quickly goes to shit, as anyone who knows history is aware. Before 1947 was out, India would be split into two nations along religious lines — Hindu and Sikh India and Muslim Pakistan — an act that resulted in an enormous refugee crisis as millions of people were displaced. As many as two million may have been killed in the sectarian violence that partition stirred up.
Chadha — who wrote the script with Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini — gets in a few sly comedic digs at the pompous grandeur of the British Raj as the newly arrived Dickie attempts to break in the two valets required to help him dress (just getting all his medals onto his uniform is a massive task) and Edwina gets a tour of Viceroy’s House, which makes Buckingham Palace look like a cozy cottage. But the filmmaker treats the Mountbattens themselves with respect, perhaps more than they deserve, even as their adventure in nation-building descends into the opposite of a white-savior story: they come across as decent, honorable people who want to do what’s best for the people India, whom they are well aware have not been treated well under colonialism. (Though, ironically, one attempt by Edwina to be more welcoming of Indian cuisine in the kitchens of Viceroy’s House backfires a little.) Dickie doesn’t favor partition — “to divide India would be a tragedy,” he says — and he seems far more inclined to listen to Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), who believes that partition will “wreak havoc,” than to Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), head of the All-India Muslim League, who had been advocating for a Muslim nation for years and finally has the opportunity to make it happen. (Spoiler! Jinnah is now honored in Pakistan as its founding father.) But forces way outside of Dickie’s control are at work, some of which he isn’t even aware of. (You will be entirely unsurprised, as the film seems to be with its dry cynicism to discover the motives certain secret factions within the British government have for pushing for partition.)
Viceroy’s House is but the latest film from Brit Chadha to explore the complicated relationship between India and Britain and the rich cultural connections between the two nations; see also her delightful Bend It Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice. But this one is more particularly personal for her: her grandparents were caught up in the chaos of partition. And it should be personal for everyone in Britain today. Chadha was at the screening I attended, and she spoke briefly before the movie unspooled about her long odyssey to get this story to the screen, and suggested that, in retrospect, there was a good reason why it took so long. She did not say the word Brexit, but that’s what she meant… and the parallels are glaringly obvious, and ominous. “Division doesn’t create peace,” Gandhi says with exasperation here. And he was right. Today, with Brexit (and also with Trump’s “philosophy” turning people against one another across national and religious lines), the dangers of letting our differences divide us loom large. Even the weakest aspect of Viceroy’s House — the fictional Romeo and Juliet romance between Hindu Jeet (Manish Dayal), one of the aforementioned valets, and Muslim Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a secretary in Edwina’s office — resonates with important and specific analogies today, with so many British-EU couples threatened with separation by Brexit (I personally know at least two such) and in the US, with families being driven apart over immigration issues. We all know that warning about those who don’t know history being condemned to repeat it. But we know. We have no excuse: we know. Here is the evidence.
In case you need a more detailed reminder, in Viceroy’s House we witness Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow: Doctor Who, The Phantom of the Opera), the British mucky-muck charged with drawing the new borders between India and Pakistan, rebelling at the job. “It’s a bloody axe cleaving right through people’s lives,” he cries. Are we going to let that happen again when we know precisely how awful that can be?