Gurinder Chadha, the mastermind behind Bend it Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice, brings the story of Indian independence to light in her new period epic Viceroy’s House.
Set in 1947 Delhi, the film unfolds within the Viceroy’s House, where Lord Mountbatten with his family live upstairs and 500 Hindu, Muslim and Sikh servants live downstairs. As Lord Mountbatten (played by Hugh Bonneville) takes up his post of handing India back to its people, we see the political elite (Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi) meet at the House to discuss the birth of independent India, conflict arises.
The narrative is framed through Lord Mountbatten’s relations with Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammed Ali Jinnah and also the servants’ relationships, particularly that between Jeet and his love interest Aalia. Happening all under the microcosm of the Viceroy's House, the film presents the friendship and love of Indians regardless of religion, that is until the subject of a potential partition arises. Manish Dayal’s portrayal of Jeet, the lovestruck former police officer, is touching as he strives to stay true to his nation whilst working under the Viceroy and effectively for the British Raj. We see him struggle to keep up his relations with his Sikh childhood friend (played by Jaz Deol) and being reunited with Aalia, (Huma Quresh).
The highlights of the film remains in its efforts to move the focus past the political elite to see the ways the partition effected the people of India. We see this through the reactions of the Indian servants, who overhear plans in the kitchen and when bringing tea to the Viceroy. In one particular scene, a Sikh and a Muslim servant overhear plans to create a new Muslim homeland; Pakistan. The excitement depicted on the face of the Muslim servant paired with the sheer concern of the Sikh servant encapsulates tension bubbling under the surface of a divided nation. A conflict arises between the different religions in the kitchen which foreshadows the rampant conflict across the nation in the latter part of the film.
As the only female, British-Asian film director, Gurinder Chadha is the perfect person to tell the story as she is best known for creating groundbreaking British-Asian cinema. In fact, her work preserved in the BFI National Archive is currently the only record of the life of South Asian Britons. So, we can argue that the film portrays the British as a generous force, and the Indians as the blame for their divided nation, but at least the story is being told. The fact that a British-Asian filmmaker is able to share her family’s personal stories of displacement on screen is itself monumental, especially as we reach the 70th anniversary of Indian independence this August.
If you’ve ever had a parent or grandparent tell you about the injustices of the British Empire, and find your 13-year old self rolling your eyes in disinterest, the film brings clarity to a lifetime of partially ignored stories and the baffling concept of being ‘British-Asian’. However, as Gurinder Chadha has noted, the film doesn’t aim to “point fingers”, but instead present the information for the audience to decide themselves. The truth is, for those of us raised in the lands of the former British Empire, we did not learn about the struggles brutality faced by colonised nations, as it was rather conveniently left out of the history syllabus. As stated by journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in her article, “Our children aren't taught the ugly truth about the British Empire”, Viceroy’s House offers the opportunity to see the lesser-shouted-about parts of British history.
Viceroy's House brings those stories of the partition back, allowing the story to finally be told in a digestible and truly emotive way. As a disclaimer I should note that the last film to make me weep was Lilo and Stitch, when they reunite because 'ohana means family and family means nobody gets left behind'. So, it’s safe to say I don't get emotional at just any film.
One thing’s for sure, Gurinder Chadha has done it again: made a masterpiece to watch with the whole family... and a packet of tissues. Catch it this opening weekend, whether’s it’s to support British-Asian cinema, for an informal history lesson, to experience the wonder that is Om Puri in his final role or just to see Manish Dayal smile.
Viceroy’s House is out nationwide now.