Gurinder Chadha is dressed up to the nines and a little breathless: she’s just arrived from an audience with HM the Queen at Buckingham Palace. She’s at the Curzon Mayfair to talk about her new film, Viceroy’s House, which has been two generations and seven years in the making. Her Majesty has seen the trailer and is looking forward to the film. I’m one step ahead of her though, as I’ve just seen it.
“All Indians have one thing in common: they can’t wait to get rid of us”
India, 1947. Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is sent to India on the mission of a lifetime: hand the country back to the Indians after 300 years of British rule. The last Viceroy of India who could “charm a vulture off a corpse” is accompanied by his wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter, Pamela (Lily Travers). The family moves into the sumptuous Viceroy’s House in Delhi with hundreds of servants to cater for their every need. Two of these take centre stage in the film as star-crossed lovers (Manish Dayal and Huma Qureshi).
“Well then, let’s not make a mess of it”
Whilst Edwina fights her battles with the chef downstairs (we want Indian fare please, none of that French nonsense), Dickie is struggling with the Indian independence issue upstairs. He can’t get a compromise between Hindu leaders Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), and the Pakistani-leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith). In order to minimise sectarian violence, he brings the handover date forward. Enter Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), the man who has never set foot in India until now. He has the unenviable task of drawing a map with a new Pakistan for Muslims and an India for the Hindus. We all know what happened next: the largest mass migration in human history with over 14 million displacements and 1 million deaths.
It wasn’t just humans who were partitioned either. As the household starts to descend into chaos, the staff try keep things calm by dishing out the cutlery (70 percent to India, 30 percent to Pakistan). Even the works of literature are divvied out with Wuthering Heights going to Pakistan whilst Jane Eyre stays in the Indian camp.
Yes, there is a whiff of Downton Abbey about this film, and it’s not just because Hugh Bonneville plays a rather Grantham-esque version of Mountbatten. There’s the Upstairs-Downstairs crowd as well, with the nice folk upstairs trying to be as friendly as possible to the servants (Edwina is quick to fire members of the household who don’t treat the help properly). Meanwhile, Dickie times his two manservants to see how quickly they can get him pimped up with all of his military paraphernalia (it takes them 13 minutes instead of the allotted 2). Throw in the love story between the Muslim and the Hindu servant, and you quickly find yourself in a spicier version of Downton.
Chadha grew up in the shadow of the partition. A few years ago, she participated in BBC’s genealogical program, Who do you think you are? which sent her on a quest to Punjabi Pakistan. There she travelled to the town where her Sikh grandfather had built a house prior to her grandmother’s flight to India during the partition (Chadha’s aunt starved on the ill-fated journey). Ironically, Indian refugees are now living in the Punjabi house.
“I was there to touch something of my past.”
Filming of Viceroy’s House began during the Syrian refugee crisis, was edited just as Brexit was unfolding and is now being promoted during Trump’s first 100 days. This all adds poignancy to a film which is all about displacement.
The film has been criticised for being soft on the British and for flaunting a nostalgia for the last days of the Raj. Chaddha’s not having any of it: “This is my version. I had to make it truthful to me… I needed hope.” Viceroy’s House may not be the harrowing depiction that one of history’s greatest human tragedies deserves, but it’s a crazy crazy world out there, and I for one forgot all about it for one fleeting, jasmine-scented moment.
Viceroy’s House opens in cinemas across the UK today.