Clearly a passion project for filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice), whose family became refugees as a result of the events depicted in this film, Viceroy’s House gives a fairly balanced account of the arrival to India in 1947 of Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey”), along with his politically active wife Lady Edwina (Gillian Anderson of “The X-Files” and “Hannibal”). He arrived as the last Viceroy of India, in charge of overseeing the transition of power from the British monarchy to the Indian people, thus giving India full independence. But it’s also a very detailed account of the upheaval and violence that erupted as the powers that be figured out the best way to make this transition work.
The country wasn’t pushing back against the British, who were already committed to getting out; the struggle occurred between the nation’s different religious groups, including Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, whose leaders were divided as to whether to keep the nation whole (as Mahatma Gandhi wished) or partition off a section of India for Muslims into a new homeland called Pakistan. I’m guessing you know who won that debate. Shot entirely in India, the sprawling, detailed re-creations of the time and place are extraordinary and lend quite a lot to the potentially dry subject matter, which includes a great deal of heated negotiation, mapmaking, and inner turmoil among the Indian staff at the Viceroy’s residence.
One of the house’s servants is Jeet (Manish Dayal, The Hundred-Foot Journey), a Hindu and former police officer and prison guard who has rekindled a romance with his lost love,a Muslim woman named Aalia (Huma Qureshi). Jeet knew (and loved) her years earlier when he looked out for her father (the late, legendary Om Puri), then a political prisoner. Their relationship provides a microcosm for a nation on the brink of division and civil war. As the final partition agreement is being worked out, tens of millions of people just like them are forced to move out of their communities, resulting in the greatest migration in human history.
Viceroy’s House is an epic story told quite effectively through the eyes and actions of these few characters. Events are likely simplified, but there are some surprising revelations, particularly regarding the drawing of new borders between India and Pakistan, that will likely twist your gut and chill your heart. Bonneville as Mountbatten is quite good, portraying a man who genuinely wanted what was best for the people of India, perhaps even more than he cared about the legacy left behind by the British. Director Chadha manages to tell a deeply personal story on a grand scale with humanity and without laying the blame for the conflict on the British or any one religious group (although she certainly would have been within her rights to do so). Though the last 10 minutes or so resort to unnecessary theatrics, the rest of the film is a technically flawless account of complex events and a great history lesson as well.
The film opens today at Chicago’s Landmark Century Center Cinema.