The most superlative aspect of Viceroy’s House and its chronicle of national history for the countries of India and Pakistan is the personal passion behind the project. Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice director Gurinder Chadha is the granddaughter of family displaced by the largest migration of people in recorded human history that occurred during the Partition of India of seventy years ago. There is an undeniable core of importance and respect present in the film that shows the great care of Chadha and all involved.
The title of Viceroy’s House refers to the opulent residence belonging to the sitting British ruler of the Dominion of India. In 1947, Rear Admiral Louis Mountbatten, the former Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command during World War II, was appointed to be the last viceroy of India and charged with transferring independence to the Indian people after three hundred years of British rule. Played by the winsome Hugh Bonneville and accompanied by his stalwart wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson, yes that Gillian Anderson) and educated daughter Pamela (Lily Travers), the Mountbattens were known for their intercultural understanding, making them deftly suited for the arduous task at hand.
Mountbatten entered a country politically torn between Hindu traditions and a strong Muslim opposition. Backed by his chief of staff and former viceroy Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon), Louis works to broker compromise between the incoming Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), Pakistani Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), and symbolic national hero Mahatma Ghandi (Neeraj Kabi). The initial hope was for one new nation, but, as talks break down and the realities of strife form, division became the unpopular answer.
Much of Viceroy’s House, behind the prim-and-proper scenes of pageantry, is seen through the eyes of the help and house staff, particularly the spirited new hire Jeet (Manish Dayal of The Hundred-Foot Journey) and apple-of-his-eye Aalia (Huma Qureshi of Gangs of Wasseypur). They and others cannot help but listen and react to the politics at play and the basic freedoms at risk in their presence. Naturally, they are a forbidden love juxtaposed as swoon to balance the social studies notes.
Despite top-notch international casting and the excellent period detail shot by My Week with Marilyn’s Ben Smithard, Viceroy’s House carries chunks of two poorly conjoined film portions. With unfettered access to the grounds of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the former Viceroy’s House as it stands today, the depth and weight of examining the monumental historical dealings is dutifully handled with wisdom and reverence. The Shakespearean love story angle comes across as conveniently nosey and unnecessary next to the bigger global picture. Think the angst of Romeo and Juliet merged with the righteousness of Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Each portion could have been separate and equally deserving and successful films, which makes what is present incomplete to a degree. By itself, a cross-faith romance set during this transitional time period would be wholly compelling and a worthy drama, encapsulating the beautiful gazes of Dayal and Qureshi to the lovely music of Slumdog Millionaire composer A.R. Rahman. Its inclusion is an understandable tonic to make a populist film, but it is a bit of an unforgivable trope. The compelling meeting of the minds and the chess match of mixed ideals should be sweeping enough on its own.
LESSON #1: LEARN THE HOST CULTURE-- Thanks in part to assertive performances from Bonneville and Anderson, the charming and empathetic Mountbattens, as foreigners, create a connective and inspiring awareness and interested benevolence towards the indigenous people facing a crossroads. No only did they respect the help and treat others within the house with due respect regardless of their demographic or spiritual background, they put in the tireless humanitarian effort and assumed their own personal risks to understand and assuage the ongoing conflict in India. Other leaders would have stayed above the fray with dismissive privilege.
LESSON #2: THE SHARED FATES OF CIVIL CONFLICT-- You cannot help but watch Viceroy’s House and the history being written without seeing the ripple effects still being seen and lived nearly three-quarters of a century later. Even the leaders themselves could sense the irrevocable consequences that would come. Creating three fledgling nations from the departure of an empire and displacing millions of refugees as migrants in their own country, hundreds of thousands of which did not survive, branded and bonded the fates of several generations.