Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, is tasked with the job that no one else wanted – finalizing the handover of power from the British Empire to the people of India. Though while giving back India her freedom appears to be a joyful task on paper, Mountbatten quickly discovers that one misstep in the proceedings could result in tragedy.
1 hour, 46 minutes
September 1, 2017
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Writers: Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini, Gurinder Chadha
Composer: A.R. Rahman
Starring: Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Hugh Bonneville, Manish Dayal
Genre: Drama, History, Biography
Rating: Not Rated. For comparative purposes, it was rated PG in Canada, and 12A in the United Kingdom.
Americans may have had to wait a while for Viceroy’s House to hit cinemas, though it pales in comparison to the time director Gurinder Chadha waited to tell this story in the first place. Chadha reports that the Partition of India had a significant impact on her upbringing, shadowing her childhood and leaving her with unsavory thoughts towards the newly created nation of Pakistan. She always wanted to tell her story – she felt compelled to not ignore the tragedy that occurred, particularly when she occupied a powerful position in the media as a writer-director. Yet the time wasn’t right. In the past, she shied away as the story was “too dark, too traumatic.”
Then in 2005, she partook in the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? television program, which allowed her the opportunity to return to her ancestral home in Jhelum. After meeting the local people and realizing the struggles they both shared even though she originally perceived them to be the opposition, Gurinder Chadha decided that it was finally time to tell her story about Partition. “I didn’t just want to explore why Partition happened and focus on the political wrangles between public figures, I also wanted to make sure the audience understood the impact of Partition on ordinary people.”
Tasked with covering a large-scale historical event, Viceroy’s House is Chadha’s most ambitious film to date. Though do her personal feelings and proximity to the story enhance or hinder the final product?
Violence/Scary Images: This film uses historical footage. Riots are depicted, along with arson attacks on property. Dead bodies, some covered with sheets, line the streets, though the most distressing images are brief. Characters frequently argue, with the altercations dissolving into physical fights. A lot of the violence is told not shown – Viceroy’s House is the story behind the Partition of India, an event that resulted in massacres, fleeing refugees, and civil unrest.
Language/Crude Humor: Many characters have strong words with each other, though actual swearing is infrequent and only ever mild. Words like bl**dy and h*ll are used, though some are arguably in context.
Sexual Content: No sex scenes or nudity. An unmarried couple passionately kiss.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Spiritual Content: The religious divide between the Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs of India is the main source of contention in the plot. While religion is a prominent issue, the actual theology behind these religions is never explored.
Other Negative Content: There’s a lot of politicking, in that no one wishes to take on responsibility, preferring instead to either pass on the problems to someone else or point fingers as to who is to blame. However, the film certainly doesn’t condone this behavior.
Positive Content: This film is certainly pro-diversity. It highlights the problems of segregating communities along religious lines. While that might seem to be a smart decision in the short term, Viceroy’s House presents the idea that a mixed society where everyone of all faiths are treated equally, is the better solution in the long run.
Around this time last year, I saw the documentary, A Beautiful Planet. Despite each frame capturing the overwhelmingly gorgeous view from the International Space Station, what struck me most was the fact that the border between India and Pakistan was so distinct that it can be easily determined from outer space. Viceroy’s House is the film that clued me in as to why the division between these two countries is so brutally apparent.
Viceroy’s House works well as a fantastic introduction to the political and cultural divide that occurred during the Partition of India in 1947. I watched this film as part of a mystery screening a few months ago. With the trailer as my only clue as to what this film was about, I was under the impression that Viceroy’s House was to be an uplifting story about the freedom of a nation, mixed in with a few jokes and awkward moments surrounding the cultural clash between the departing British and the burgeoning people of India. That’s partially true, except that’s the equivalent of describing Titanic as merely a whirlwind romance… until you’re hit with an iceberg and everyone starts dying. Oh no, Viceroy’s House is much more than some light-hearted comedy and romance (and it’s partly insulting that the trailer insinuated it as such in the first place)! Instead, it’s a well-rounded look at one of the biggest cultural tragedies of the modern era, with the story reaching epic proportions.
Director Gurinder Chadha, of Bend It Like Beckham fame, does well to manage such a grand sweeping tale. Her biggest accomplishment is in making India feel like a character in itself. So when it is torn in two, it’s painful to watch. The plot essentially follows three stories; the political battles that the last Viceroy (Lord Mountbatten) must endure, a Romeo and Juliet archetypical romance between a local Hindu man (Jeet) and an Islamic woman (Aalia), and the wider happenings in the unruly nation itself. By the end of this film, I felt that I left the cinema a different person. I was enriched with a greater understanding of this travesty in human history, as though I had just witnessed the painful birth of two nations, smeared with the blood sacrifice of a million much-loved and thoroughly missed family members.
However, as mentioned previously, Viceroy’s House works well as an introductory piece to this historical event. Others at the mystery screening who originally knew more about the Partition of India found the film to be disappointing. Since the story’s scope is so wide, the movie doesn’t flesh out any of the three storylines in tremendous detail. If you’re hoping the film explores the marital scandals between Mr. and Mrs. Mountbatten, then you’ll need to look elsewhere. Viceroy’s House keeps things incredibly clean, and despite featuring multiple scenes where every asset imaginable within the house is split, there’s surprisingly no division seen within the marriage.
Similarly, if you want more of an authentic story regarding what was happening within the local community during Partition, then Viceroy’s House is also oddly insufficient. Granted, the film’s title suggests that most of the action occurs within the titular building, and that is exactly what occurs. Though this is a surprising choice once one learns the director’s personal connection to this historical tragedy. I won’t go into too much detail, as the reveal during the end credits is wonderfully powerful, however, the moment is overshadowed by the thought as to why that particular tale wasn’t told instead. Some critics feel this was a missed opportunity. Though judging from Gurinder Chadha’s comments on the development of this project, it can be suggested that a story about her personal history may hit too close to home, which might explain why the heavier content in Viceroy’s House feels like it’s kept at an arm’s length at all times.
Yet Chadha’s family history is actually reflected in the fictional romance between the characters Jeet and Aalia. Similar to how James Cameron used the social status of Jack and Rose to explore all aspects of the Titanic before its tragic sinking, Chadha also uses Jeet and Aalia as an excuse to swing the focus between the Hindus, Muslims, and the tensions within the staff at the Viceroy’s House. Their relationship is highly symbolic; a microcosm of the cultural strain that surrounds them. They represent the heart of the film, with their desire to be together reminiscent of the wishes of the Indian people. That storyline’s conclusion also wonderfully sets up Chadha’s personal testimony.
However, while in mathematics it’s helpful to see someone’s working out, in narrative storytelling sometimes it’s too obvious. Using the romantic couple to represent so many things, while clever and necessary for the plot to work, it’s also terribly affronting. This is the major complaint about this film – the romance will come across to many as simply trying too hard, or it’s too schmaltzy. With so much of the story weighing heavily on this particular relationship, if it falls flat for you, then so will the rest of the movie.
For me personally, I enjoyed it. The relationship certainly could have been established better, or become deeper, but it was just enough for me to appreciate the film. Understanding everything they symbolized actually made my second viewing of this movie more enjoyable. Though as I said, many others at the screening found this relationship to be the film’s weakest point. So if you’re not into romances set against epic, tragic backgrounds, then there will be little to enjoy in Viceroy’s House.
As far as the technical elements are concerned, they are all relatively competent. A. R. Rahman’s score is sentimental, but also has a sense of grandeur and fits the epic tale nicely, although he has produced better work within his career. The strongest department may possibly be the editing. It skips from Chadha’s beautifully framed images to historical footage with relative ease. As for the weakest, the set design was oddly jarring, particularly with the servants’ quarters. It all felt too new, as though those building had never been occupied previously, though the production design within the Viceroy’s House was exceptional.
Despite these flaws, I adore this film. Admittedly it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. I love that Chadha took the time to include a lot of smaller details; little character arcs that just make the story pop even more. There’s a lovely, sad moment between two chefs that nicely highlights other aspects of the impact of Partition. The portrayal of famous figures, Ghandi in particular, carry a certain sense of awe. Indeed, all the performances are amazing, with Gillian Anderson masterfully disappearing into her role. Even though this is a historical film, the screenwriters actually manage to include a twist. All these things are difficult to pull off and Gurinder Chadha needs to be commended.
It’s a nicely paced film, and I thoroughly recommend it for those who wish to learn more about this important piece of world history. Yet I completely acknowledge that it will not please everyone, and the film will appear to be quite shallow for those who are seeking a richer, grittier look on Partition.
+ A great introduction to what happened during the Partition of India.
+ Includes a twist even though it's a historical film.
+ Clever use of a romance as a way to symbolize and explore different themes.
+ Many little touches and character arcs that enrich the story.
+ Makes India feel like a living entity.
- Doesn't provide a deeper view for those who are more knowledgeable about Partition.
- Only displays the surface level tension in the Mountbatten household.
- The romance is too overt and rather schmaltzy at times.
- The director missed the opportunity to tell a more personalized story.