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Viceroy’s House isn’t wholly successful, but maybe trying to depict the fraught months leading up to India’s Partition in a movie less than two hours long was never a venture that could succeed.
The biggest hurdle director Gurinder Chadha and her screenwriter husband Paul Mayeda Berges set for themselves is in trying to portray events in a way that is, if not objective, then at least fair. Most of the key players — fictional and historical — are shown as having good intentions and understandable motivations (except for the Muslims who work for the viceroy, who all agitate for an independent Pakistan). Yet knowing now of the refugee crisis that immediately followed Partition and the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, is the focus on good intentions even desirable?
Viceroy’s House begins with the installation of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) as the last viceroy, tasked with turning over the subcontinent to Indian rule. Even with independence on the horizon, Mountbatten maintains his aristocratic lifestyle, timing his servants to make sure they can dress him quickly enough for his satisfaction.
Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), and their teenage daughter Pamela (Lily Travers), are more aware of the value of softening the image of the British as rulers in favor of something more democratic. Edwina invites Indian guests to parties at the estate, asking the all-Indian kitchen staff to adjust the menu to cater to local tastes. When the sous chef complains in Hindi that all of his training is in English-style cooking, the Lady’s assistant Aalia (Huma Qureshi) translates his comments as polite assent to the request. It’s as though the movie itself doesn’t want its British characters to have to deal with the mess that their predecessors left, and as if the present viceroy’s family’s good intentions have wiped the slate clean.
In an effort to put the larger events in a more personal context, Viceroy’s House features a love story between Aalia and Jeet (Manish Dayal), one of Lord Mountbatten’s grooms. They love each other, but he is Hindu and she is Muslim, in addition to being betrothed to a nice man, Asif (Arunoday Singh), as fulfillment of her mother’s dying wish. Jeet wants Aalia to follow her heart, but she has not only Asif’s feelings to consider but the well-being of her blind father (played by Om Puri). Would they really be safe in a Hindu-majority India? Jeet’s naive faith in both a united India and in the power of love to conquer all lead him to dismiss Aalia’s concerns as a lack of courage.
Casting Hugh Bonneville as an aristocrat invites comparisons to his role as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey. Where the two stories differ is in their ability to entwine the lives of characters of different classes, thus providing a more complete picture of society at the time. Downton Abbey did so successfully through subplots like Lady Sybil helping Gwen the maid find a job as a secretary.
In Viceroy’s House, the Mountbatten’s lack such intimate connections to their staff. The wealthy Brits have ideas as to what might be troubling their servants, but they don’t know details. The whole feel of the film would have changed with better integration between the class-specific plots, such as Pamela learning of Aalia’s romantic problems and using her position to find a way for Aalia and Jeet to be together.
Where Viceroy’s House does succeed is showing the scope of the problems complicating the British departure from India. There are no easy solutions, and blood was already being shed when Mountbatten arrived. However, asking the audience to feel bad for Mountbatten — a representative of a white, foreign power that had been exploiting India for centuries — just because he personally didn’t create the problems he was asked to solve is a bit much.
The accomplished cast — which also includes Michael Gambon, Darshan Jariwala, Denzil Smith, and Neeraj Kabi — give laudable performances all around. Huma Qureshi is charming, and Arunoday Singh stands out in his few scenes. If the two of them can’t find quality parts in Bollywood, come to Hollywood, please!