Sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a movie you particularly want to see (for example, Logan), sometimes you go to the cinema because there’s a film you think you ought to see (for example, Moonlight, which I’m expecting to see this week), and sometimes you go to the cinema just because you fancy going to the cinema, not least because the pub next door does a good Sunday lunch (and a good job it was next door, given the horrendous torrential rain and hailstorms we had to put up with today). So it was that I ended up seeing Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, yet more evidence that British film-makers (and, presumably, audiences) are endlessly fascinated by India, both historical and modern. This is a film with a rather anodyne title, belying the fact it deals with some reasonably heavy material.
The main thrust of the story is focused on Dickie Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), nephew of the last Tsar, cousin of the Queen, war hero, and all around good egg. As things get underway Mountbatten is flying to India to take up the post of viceroy and oversee the transition to local rule. With him is his wife (Gillian Anderson) and their daughter (Pamela Travers). Mountbatten is a little upset because he had been hoping to go to Florida and become the (wait for it) Miami viceroy (ha! ha! oh, my sides).
The path to Indian independence is set to be a rocky one, given the cultural and religious divisions that the British have stoked up (one character observes that British Imperial policy seems to be divide-and-conquer, then divide-and-leave), and the country’s Muslim minority, represented by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), are agitating for their own state, Pakistan. The Hindu and Sikh majority, led by Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi), are set against this, and violence between adherents of the different faiths looms. Luckily, the Mountbattens have no time for this kind of intolerance, and indeed they happily include members of all religions amongst the legions of servants who wait on them hand-and-foot within the viceroy’s house (come on, guys, it’s more like a palace).
Now, you can’t these days make a film about the partition of India which is told solely from the point of view of upper-class Brits, and so the local side of the story is represented by the tale of young lovers Aalia and Jeet, played by Huma Qureshi and Manish Dayal (I guess Dev Patel must have been busy making Lion). She is a Muslim, he is a Hindu, and quite apart from the fact that she’s engaged to someone else, the difference in their religions is bound to cause them trouble.
All right, so there’s some interesting historical material here, but Viceroy’s House cops out of addressing it with any genuine rigour. ‘History is written by the victors’ is the first line of the film, which it goes on to disprove by depriving the Indians who won independence for their country of any meaningful role in the story. Even the terms of reference are suspect: ‘the British have been in India for three hundred years’ a caption informs us, making it sound rather like they’ve been enjoying an extended backpacking holiday rather than engaging in a military occupation. ‘You’re giving a nation back to its people!’ Mountbatten is told, the question of who actually took it away from them in the first place being rather skipped over. The British decision to leave is presented as an act of magnanimity, or possibly a consequence of the sacrifices made during the Second World War, rather than anything to do with the Indian independence movement.
Instead, we just get Lord and Lady Mountbatten, who are both thoroughly decent, working their absolute hardest to see the Indian people get the best possible treatment in a thoroughly inclusive way – Lady Mountbatten sacks her secretary for being a bit racist, then announces there will be more local food on the menu at official engagements from now on. (‘I spend all my life learning to make European food, and now she asks me for curry!’ cries the sous chef, periphrastically.) We are practically instructed to like these people, and feel for them when it all threatens to get a bit too much and their upper lips go a bit wobbly. (The last film I saw which went on about stiff upper lips as much as this one was Carry On Up the Khyber, not the kind of association I suspect the makers of Viceroy’s House were aiming for.)
The political aspect is not gone into in any depth, and even while watching the film you’re aware that complex historical matters are being whizzed through in a pretty facile way. The film’s overall position seems to be that partition was something of a historical tragedy (good luck on getting your film released in Islamabad!), brought about by devious British geo-political machinations, but even here it is painstaking in expunging the Mountbattens of any blame (like that really matters). There’s some strong stuff here (the man given about a month to decide on the border between India and Pakistan, played here by Simon Callow, had never set foot in India before, for instance) but it is not explored in any real detail.
Rather than this, the film opts to follow the Jeet-Aalia romance, which – in true Bollywood style – largely consists of long, longing looks, and the odd dance routine. To say this plotline is chocolate-boxey doesn’t begin to do justice to just how hackneyed and sentimental it seems, redeemed only partly by a fine performance from the late Om Puri as Aalia’s father. By the end of the film it has simply become cheesy, and almost absurdly so.
I was in the restroom after the film, attending to some pressing personal business, when I overheard a couple of other people discussing Viceroy’s House. ‘Very sanitised,’ said one of them, cheerily. ‘Yeah,’ said the other, ‘but then as soon as I saw the director’s name I understood why, ha ha.’ I would love to think this was a reference to Chadha’s track record making fairly soft-centred crowd-pleasers such as Bend It Like Beckham, but I fear it was not the case. You still can’t beat a little casual racism, it seems, even when it doesn’t actually make sense – for while Viceroy’s House is indeed a true-story film which has had all the chewy historical bits sieved out of it, the real beneficiaries of this are the British characters, not the Indian ones.
There are a lot of good actors doing their best in Viceroy’s House, and the script does contain many amusing and interesting moments, and I can imagine this film will do rather well with audiences looking for a mixture of Downton Abbey and The Jewel in the Crown. I do think, though, that it’s trying much too hard to be accessible and crowd-pleasing, because the history at the heart of the story is grossly short-changed and over-simplified as a result. It is a hard film to dislike, but I’m not sure that means you shouldn’t try.