Some portions of our vast history are inevitably overshadowed by events that come after them, and it sparks curiosity when such times are explored – and brings delight when they are explored competently. Such is the case with Viceroy’s House as it provides its audience with a window into a period in history not often explored in contemporary film – specifically, the Partition of India. Director Gurinder Chadha, noted for her many comedic productions that also explore Indian culture and highlight cultural differences between the East and West, has decided to dive into history for the first time in her film-making career. Dramedies comprise the bulk of Chadha’s filmography, and this sudden leap into history produces a surprisingly pleasant result. Coming off of the heels of 2010’s decidedly lacklustre It’s A Wonderful Afterlife, she moves towards something much more serious as she covers a crucial point in India’s history.
It is 1947. With figures such as Ghandi and Nehru coming to the fore, India is embroiled in a push for independence. The last Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his family enter the country in a time of turmoil – along with an increasing desire for self-governance among the Indian people, a significant portion of the Muslim population is also advocating the formation of a nation of their own: Pakistan. A young couple of two separate faiths, Jeet Kumar and Aalia, offer a civilian perspective of the events that unfold. As their relationship develops and the situation in the country intensifies, their plight is contrasted with the troubles that Mountbatten himself faces in his new position.
The narrative focus of the film is twofold, dividing itself Jeet, Aalia, and Mountbatten and his family’s dealings with Indian higher-ups in equal measure. For the former two characters, the film ends up following what seems to be the standard for films set in a historical period – at least if productions such as Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor and James Cameron’s Titanic indicate anything. That standard is that the historical aspect of the film ultimately serves as a sort of window dressing to a fictional romantic story. Unlike those examples, however, the story on display here does not end up becoming a detriment to the plot, nor is it shoved down the throats of the viewers. It is rather clichéd in its handling and execution, but it holds well in getting the main point of the story across.
It is in this one side of the tale, though, that the film shows the bulk of its weaknesses – the story involving the invented characters of Jeet and Aalia ends up, being the comparatively less compelling part of the film. While not inherently bad, it all just comes across as rather standard fare, a typical forbidden relationship in times of growing mistrust and social strife. Good efforts from Qureshi and Dayal ensure that the experience is not a chore to watch, and especially on Jeet’s side there are several emotional moments throughout the film that are particularly striking which show how far-reaching the extent of the division affecting India truly is. Despite its overall competence however, it is rather rote and by the numbers, and it is instead the political dealings and private conversations that occur within the titular house that provide more of the gripping moments across the film’s brief 106-minute running time and contain more in the way of substance. From Lord Mountbatten trying as determinedly as he can to deal with unexpected developments to desperately attempting to find a solution to an increasingly bloody problem as time ceaselessly marches on, topped off with a handful of stellar scenes involving Bonneville and Michael Gambon as Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay which put on display the inherently dirty nature of politics.
Viceroy’s House accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well, despite falling prey to a handful of clichés and narrative trip-ups
That is where the film shines, but the story in and of itself is not lacking. A plain but effective narrative is bolstered by strong performances on the part of its cast. Bonneville, Anderson and Gambon are particularly on point across the film. Anderson, as Lady Cynthia Mountbatten, is the focus of many scenes involving her and Bonneville, wherein she often serves as a voice of reason to her embattled husband in times of strife – particularly later in the story as riots spread and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) becomes increasingly insistent on the creation of Pakistan, and she and Bonneville pl. He is not the only historical figure on display here, either – Ghandi (Neeraj Kabi) and Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) also feature prominently, and their interactions with the British highlight the uphill struggle the Indian people feel they face, and the inherent difficulty of resolving such a colossal issue as partition while simultaneously striving to have control of their own destiny. Such scenes give us a keen insight into the problems that everyone involved faced in the middle of such a tumultuous period.
The chaos is exacerbated further by the hardships of the people of India that are frequently on display throughout the film. The Indian side of the narrative uses a love story as its focus, but that does not diminish the overall impact of the events within the story itself. Their plight exists as a microcosm of the tribulations that millions of citizens endured at the time. Jeet and Aalia are first-hand witnesses to discrimination, violence and worse, and the tragedies that accompany their relationship reveal the pain that countless other families suffered back then. Ultimately, the film is almost a documentary as much as it is a tale of romance with an historical backdrop, and Chadha’s aim to spread awareness of this troubling time that affected so many is doubtlessly a noble one which is greatly appreciated.
It’s a solid feature that provides crucial insight into a part of the 20th century that has been passed over by some. The problem with such a specific, singular focus, however, is that the film may only appeal most greatly to either those who were affected by the partition, those who come from families who still remember its effects – indeed, as Chadha herself does – or keenly interested history buffs. Along with the relatively plain nature of the romantic tragedy that’s presented, the scenes involving the Mountbattens and the assorted government officials may come across as dry and lacking in flavour to those without an interest in this specific period of history – even off the back of strong performances.
Nevertheless, Viceroy’s House accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well, despite falling prey to a handful of clichés and narrative trip-ups. One should not walk away from it thinking of the romance, but instead it should be treated as a lovingly-crafted and portentous history lesson – even with its potentially narrow focus, in times such as these when division and mistrust are flaring once again, it is a warning of the present and the future just as much as it is a reminder of a nation’s turbulent past.