In high school, I was lucky enough to befriend a girl who was raised in Pakistan. Her passion for Pakistan was contagious and she introduced me to as much of the culture as possible. Branching out a bit from Pakistan, I started listening to Indian music and annually attending local Indian festivals, trying to quench my thirst for a region of the world I had yet to explore.
Bearing this in mind, it should come as no surprise that when I heard that a film about India’s independence was being released, it shot to the top of my list. With a brilliant score and vibrant, majestic visuals, Viceroy’s House does not disappoint - but it does come with a twist. I’d expected a story of triumph and freedom as India came into herself, but that shows just how little I actually knew about Indian history.
Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) specializes in making films about family and identity, particularly among those with Indian and British backgrounds. As she is Punjabi Sikh Kenyan Indian origin and lives in England, it makes sense to write what you know, right? Chadha began in journalism and transitioned to film with pure guts and stamina. Toss in a unique (and much-needed) bicultural perspective and you’ve got yourself a history-making artist.
Viceroy’s House tells the story of Britain’s final viceroy and the challenges that come with handing a nation back to its people after over three hundred years of being ruled by an empire.
Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) plays Lord Mountbatten, a man with the sincere desire for peace, and yet one who is placed in a difficult situation; everyone has a strong opinion about how the handover should happen, but no one seems to agree on how to do it effectively. And the clock is ticking. Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) plays his wife, Edwina, who seriously rocked my world. In an era when many people viewed India as an uncivilized, backwater posting in the empire, she viewed it as a privilege. She embraced as much of the culture as possible.
Manish Dayal (The Hundred-Foot Journey) plays Jeet, the Viceroy’s new valet. Manish was so deeply invested in each scene, that I found him impossible to ignore. And Huma Qureshi (Gangs of Wasseypur) plays Aalia, a Muslim woman who works as an interpreter for the Mountbatten family to support her ageing father. It’s a complex role to play someone that’s both independent and respectful, a pioneer and a woman that values tradition, but Huma spins these plates well.
Viceroy’s House was a passion project. Chadha decided to make it after a trip to her family home, which is now in Pakistan. Before Chadha was born, her family was forced to flee to the new borders of India after Partition. Later, they were part of the Indian diaspora in West Africa. In this piece she wrote for The Guardian, Chadha shares a moving encounter with the kind Muslim family that now lives in the house that her family had to abandon. After receiving their love and hospitality, Chadha recounts:
“I burst into uncontrollable tears, tears held back over years of trying to contain the injustices of history to which my family had been subject, tears now released as I wept with the inhabitants of my ancestral homeland, now a different country, but one where we still shared the same Punjabi language and sense of family. It was at that moment that I vowed I would make a film that told the story of partition. Although I had been a film-maker for many years, I had never had the courage to tackle the political tragedy that tore my family apart. As I researched the script, I also began to realise how little I really knew of the bigger picture, of the global interests at play as India was divided.”
Viceroy’s House’s release comes on the seventieth anniversary of India’s independence, but it’s bittersweet. The pains of birthing a new nation were far greater than I’d realized, but it was an essential part of Chadha’s history as her grandparents were survivors of this dangerous period. It was partially for their memory that this film was made.
Chadha does a wonderful job of infusing history and the very specific challenges faced by this nation into the film in a way that is accessible to a non-Indian audience. As she is British and Indian, she is able to come at this topic from both perspectives, paying respect to each.
Her decision to shoot the entire film on location in India showed the dichotomies of colonialism without any extra effort. The country’s natural beauty acted as a majestic backdrop to the colorful dress of the Indian characters, which was a vivid contrast with the formal Western clothing worn by the British (honestly, I don’t know how they survived with those uniforms in the heat!).
Bonneville and Anderson’s passion for the material brought depth to an already stellar script. An honorable mention must be paid to A.R. Rahman, who composed a score that I just have to keep listening to. It is moving, powerful, elegant, and has a sweeping, melodic strain that pays homage to the ancient nation that inspired it.
Britain’s plan to hand over India to its people came with strings attached, and the leaders in India had agendas of their own. The three main religious groups (Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim) were desperate for assurance that no one would be treated like second-class citizens based on the religious background of India’s new leader. To make a long story short, the creation of Pakistan as a nation for the Muslim citizens of India was the solution. This solution (known as Partition) caused the largest mass migration in history and resulted in a death toll of over one million from violence, disease, and starvation. Unfortunately, tensions continue to this day.
I thought Viceroy’s House would be a heartwarming tale of a new nation being born, but what I saw was far more important. When we see labels more than we see people, divisions conquer us. Division was their solution for peace, but division only ever divides.