‘Viceroy’s House’ provides subtext for more humane policy

The year is 1947. Britain, having just exited World War II, lacks the manpower to maintain its foot-hold in an India teeming with civil unrest. In a sharp departure from 300 years of imperial rule, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is appointed as India’s final Viceroy, or de facto president.

This is the stage for Gurinder Chadha’s historical drama, Viceroy’s House. The film opens with the arrival of Mountbatten and family; Mountbatten is responsible for facilitating the transition of India from British rule to sovereign-state. Simultaneously, a new servant, Jeet (Manish Dayal), is hired.

Mountbatten provides insight to the inner workings and complex politics of pre-partition India. Meanwhile, strong supporting characters, like his wife, daughter and Jeet, prove just as crucial. They serve as our lens to ordinary life.

Far from being a unified front, the only thing India’s people seem to have in common is the desire to finally free themselves from 300 years of imperial rule. Through Mountbatten’s statesman meetings, which feature prominent figures like Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) and Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Gani), we become privy to the delicacy of the situation. Gandhi functions as a mouthpiece for secularism. While Nehru advocates for the creation of Muslim-state Pakistan, Gandhi leans toward preserving India as a single entity. It’s difficult to avoid sympathizing with either figure. Gandhi, having weathered most of British imperial rule, is so overjoyed by the possibility of shaking oppression that he remains open to the idea of compromise – so long as it occurs within one nation-state. Nehru, on the other hand, is cognizant of how Muslims are a minority – outnumbered by Hindus “one to four.” He fears that, when India reverts back to a single entity, Muslims might become second-class citizens. Gandhi remains inflexible, this time pushing for constitutional protections and provisions under the new India even though, as Nehru points out, it’d be the “equivalent to the treatment of African Americans in America.”

As a statesman, Mountbatten is supposed to remain impartial. But with all of these conflicting views attempting to steer him in disparate directions, arriving at the logical conclusion becomes increasingly difficult. Where, for example, do good intentions end and ulterior motives begin? And why has it suddenly become impossible for people who have co-existed in spite of religious differences for centuries to continue doing the exact same thing? Though Mountbatten is anxious to transfer power and by extension wash his hands of the situation as quickly as possible, his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and Jeet remind him that these are people’s lives he’s dealing with. People’s entire lives will be restructured depending on how arbitrary boundaries are drawn on policy maps.

While Mountbatten juggles politics, his wife and daughter give us glimpses of India beyond the viceroy’s house. Edwina makes diligent efforts to retract assimilation. At one point, she encourages house staff to nix British recipes in favor of traditional Indian cuisine. Their daughter, Pamela (Lily Travers), even dabbles in some Hindi and becomes an adjunct schoolteacher. However, violent massacres and riots fueled by an “us versus them” mentality disrupt these periods of relative calm. Jeet, who is privy to most of Mountbatten’s policy meetings, stands at the epicenter of the brewing turmoil. Through Jeet, we see how quickly the most seemingly harmonious of relationships dissolve into celebratory chants that “Pakistan is in the bag” or how a neighborhood party can quickly erupt into a physical altercation. Jeet also has to deal with his strained relationship and feelings for Pamela’s assistant, Aaila (Huma Qureshi). She’s Muslim, he’s Hindu; this cultural barrier is further complicated by a physical one as partition and the separation of Muslim and Hindu majority states draws closer. Fearing that Mountbatten will rush into a hasty decision, Edwina scolds, “This is why you’re not a good chess player,” before cautioning him to “give [partition] time.”

Mountbatten’s reluctance is understandable. Realizing that his decision will spark outrage either way, he lets Nehru and others cajole him into divvying up India. This in turn sparks a massive refugee crisis, with millions of Muslims and Sikhs displaced. The cramped conditions at refugee camps meant cholera-induced death was commonplace, as were reunions with loved ones.

Later on, it’s revealed that Mountbatten’s predecessor and Winston Churchill had drafted plans for partition with similar boundaries. Those who pressured him into accelerating his decision, like Nehru, claim they had to feign ignorance to keep Mountbatten impartial. What seemed to be arbitrary demarcation lines are revealed to be convenient locations for port and oil reserve access. This chess conceit is then extended if we consider how Mountbatten has become the pawn of Churchill and others. He, indelibly associated with the plan, will be who people hold accountable for the unrest in partition’s wake.

A common adage is that history is written by the victors, but Mountbatten’s character comments, “There are no victors here.” I’d have to disagree. There’s a certain triumph in Chadha, who is herself the granddaughter of someone who survived displacement after partition, crafting this film. The film doesn’t let the history overshadow the humanity and beautifully underscores the importance of shying away from “one-size-fits-all” domestic policy. Some of these issues remain relevant and, while the slates of imperialism and extortion can’t be wiped clean, the warning bells of failed policy and calls for compassion ring as loudly as ever.

‘Viceroy’s House’ delves into the partition, which was the separation of India into Hindu and Muslim majority countries. Photo courtesy of telegraph.co.uk