With the vivid historical drama Viceroy’s House, director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) accomplishes two goals: presenting the viewpoint of people affected by the machinations of a powerful ruler, and portraying Lord Mountbatten, reviled for the 1947 partition of India which formed Pakistan and prompted a devastating mass migration, in a different light.
The former is achieved through the taboo interfaith romance of two fictional servants at the Delhi palace that housed the British colonial government, and the latter with the premise (based on The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of Partition, written by Mountbatten’s aide-de-camp Narendra Singh Sarila) that the savvy viceroy was duped by political advisers who’d already devised the boundary for strategic advantage.
Lord and Lady Mountbatten are dispatched as the last great white saviors of India, tasked with overseeing the peaceful transfer of power to local hands. Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson play them as charming and benevolent figures, whose noblesse oblige seems to have in it some genuine empathy. Both valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) and translator Aalia (Huma Qureshi) find reasons to be hopeful, but it’s already too late. Waves of violence roil across India, which Chadha presents via newsreels and infighting between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs at the staff compound.
Screenwriters Chadha, her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, and Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) render Jeet and Aalia as Lean-esque lovers buffeted by historical forces. Using the trappings of old-fashioned romanticism, Chadha envisions the cataclysmic upheaval of millions in the traumatic lives of a few.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on September 1, 2017 by IFC Films
First published in The Village Voice, 2017.
Viceroy’s House is available on Netflix