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Viceroy’s House, Britain / India 2017

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2017

This is a new film directed by Gurinder Chadha and scripted by her partner and regular collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges. It is set in India in the months in which the British colonial rulers partitioned the sub-continent as they claimed to be giving it freedom. The film deliberately limits itself and is almost completely set in the official residence of the Viceroy; newly arrived Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela ( Lily Travers). Fairly obviously the film is restricted to a rather partial presentation of this seismic and violent event.

The film was immediately taken to task in an article in The Guardian newspaper by Fatima Bhutto. She is a writer, poet and a member of the famous ruling family who have been key players in the history of Pakistan. Her article is a fierce denunciation of the film which includes the following paragraph:

“Communal violence between Hindus and Muslims is spoken of by the Mountbatten’s and other Raj imperialists as though it were a cyclone, arriving in India from some unknown provenance, moved by an unknowable science. Divide and rule, a staple of British colonial administration, is given no credence. Three hundred million Hindus and Sikhs want a united India, she informs us via Raj interlocutors; it is 100 million Muslims who do not. Mirroring the fractures of modern nationalism wrought by India’s partition, Chadha seems to take pleasure in laying the bloodshed and brutality of 1947 at the feet of two particular villains: Muslims and Jinnah.”

Fatima Bhutto was clearly outraged by the film and I would agree with many of her strictures. However, her article does not really address the work as cinema. She relies partly on points regarding plot and dialogue and only briefly discusses the representations. I suspect she became angry early in the film because later on she makes some problematic claims: she gives an example of negative representation by referring to a Muslim father:

“Amid the chaos of partition, Chadha shows a kindly elder Sikh lady who has brought a Muslim woman to the police. The Muslim woman is black and blue. Her father, the old woman tells the cop, threw her under a train, but she would like to adopt her. The crudeness of this moment is painful and sad to behold. Even a (pointedly non-Muslim) stranger is more nurturing than a Muslim parent.”

More importantly she ignores or fail to note an important scene where Lord Mountbatten has a disagreement with a General Ismay (Michael Gambon) after discovering that the line of partition has apparently been set up in advance of negotiations.

Unsurprisingly Gurinder Chadha responded in the pages of The Guardian:

“My film does not ignore the freedom struggle – it celebrates that struggle. (“The British empire brought to its knees by a man in a loincloth,” as Lady Mountbatten comments.) It does not ignore the colonial policy of divide and rule, but challenges it. (As Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru comments to Lord Mountbatten: “You have divided us and now you ask us for a solution.”) Above all, it does not show the Muslim community as sole perpetrators of violence.”

She points out in particular the glaring error made by Bhutto:

” In her most inflammatory allegation, Bhutto writes that the film depicts a Muslim father throwing his daughter from a train, only for her to be saved by a Hindu woman. She asserts that I do this to show that “a (pointedly non-Muslim) stranger is more nurturing than a Muslim parent”. In fact, what the film depicts is a Hindu mob attacking a train of Muslim families – the father pushes his daughter from the train to save her, not to kill her. “

She also claims that Bhutto article defames the film by claiming that

” My film has been wilfully misrepresented as anti-Muslim “

In fact Bhutto claims that the film represents Muslims and the Leader of the Muslim League, Mohammad Ali Jinnah ‘as villains’. That is not quite the same thing. Whilst Bhutto does exaggerate the representations in the film I think she is correct when she argues that the film more frequently points the finger at the Muslim League than at the Congress leaders. And I also agree that the film fails to nail the manipulative and racist conduct of the British.

What is missing from the film is the historical context. There are some lines of dialogue that refer to the recent history of the sub-continent, such as those quoted by Chadha. But this not a substitute for setting out the context in an understandable fashion in the script. What is presented and dramatised  to the viewer is mainly events and discussions in the British residence: one building in the whole teaming and [at this time] volatile sub-continent. And as a mainstream film the emphasis is on actions rather than discussion: and the critical dialogue is submerged in a plot that centres on a benevolent British hero, Mountbatten.

In an excellent article, also in The Guardian (‘The myth of Britain’s gifts to India’), Shashi Tharoor has taken the supporters of British imperial history to task with specific reference to the sub-continent. He makes the point that what is termed ‘communalism’, [a misnomer for descriptions of actions seen as sectarian] is the result of British colonial practice. A prime example is the 1905 partition of Bengal by the then Governor-General Lord Curzon,  which resulted [among other aspects] in conflict between Hindus and Muslims. It is worth noting that the subsequent letter page of ‘The Guardian’ contained a slew of letters criticising Tharoor and defending the British role in the sub-continent. This is an example of the British failing to face up to their history: a problem that is part of Viceroy’s House.

Also missing is from Viceroy’s House is any reference to the Indian National Army. These Indians fought alongside the Japanese against the British in India on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. In 1946 the British colonial administration prosecuted a number of the INA leaders. This sparked popular outrage and both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League opposed the trials. It seems that this uproar hastened the British recognition that colonial rule must end. [See Rangoon (2017) for the INA in a film).

Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges have collaborated on a number of films. Essentially they are upbeat family dramas, Bend it Like Beckham (2002), the most successful, is a good example. The one film directed by Chadha that addresses in serious fashion social and political contradictions is Bhaji on the Beach (1993). But the content of this film would appear to owe most to the writer Meera Syal.

Mountbatten, Lady Edwina and their servants

Viceroy’s House, to a degree, fits in this pattern whilst at the same time it is also an example of ‘a heritage film’. Chadha commented that the film was an ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ drama: that is the long-running British television series constructed around a bourgeois family [upstairs] and their retinue of servants [downstairs]. That series, and a comparable more recent success ‘Downton Abbey’, rely on careful historical recreation in terms of sets, props and costumes. They are well served by the tradition of British character acting. At the same time they clearly relish the trappings of bourgeois life, a presumably vicarious experience for much of the audience. And they undoubtedly are dominated [as society generally] by bourgeois values. The ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ series ran on ITV from 1971 to 1975. The key member of the household was the Butler, Hudson, played by Gordon Jackson. He acted as both a enabler between the class divide in the house and normally brought the downstairs working class servants into line with the ‘upstairs’ bourgeois family values. An instructive episode was the one concerning the 1926 General Strike. Here whilst the members of the ‘upstairs’ supported the Government and actively participated in anti-trade union actions the ‘downstairs’ were sympathetic to the strikers. The family patriarch, Richard Bellamy (David Langton), actually took an apparent ‘middle’ or ‘compromise’ stance, which was picked up by Hudson. By the end of the episode Hudson has bought the servant quarters into line with ‘upstairs’ as represented by David Bellamy. But as the two representatives of the miners left the house, isolated in the street, the actual stance was one of working class defeat and bourgeois victory.

In Viceroy’s House the 1940s is recreated with careful attention to detail,  The casting of Hugh Bonneville, who plays a key character in the television series ‘Downton Abbey’, as Lord Mountbatten, reinforced this. In this television series he plays, Robert, Earl of Grantham. He is thus the patriarch and equivalent of Richard Bellamy. Whilst he is an aristocratic bourgeois he is also presented as a liberal figure; one of a number of aspects carried over into Mountbatten. Mountbatten is, to a degree, separate from the British establishment. And he was perceived so, especially by the leaders of Congress. The actual Mountbatten, according to memoirs by people who knew him, was a rather different type of figure. Chadha’s film does catch certain character aspects, such as his vanity and love of regal uniforms.

Lady Edwina acts the Hudson role, mediating both with the Viceroy’s household and with refugees from the violence. In a key scene she advises the kitchen staff that they need to accommodate Indian cuisine. Later in the film we see her working to alleviate the suffering of the victims of the violence. There is only a subtle reference to her well-publicised affair with Nehru: a two-shot of them as they and Mountbatten share tea.

Lady Edwina, Mountbatten and General Ismay

As the chief onscreen villain we have Michael Gambon as General Ismay: previously he was the misanthropic landowner in the satirical take on the ‘country house’ cycle Gosforth Park (2001). The other key member of the British ruling elite is Cyril Radcliff (Simon Callow), another player from the heritage film cycle. The presentation of the Indian characters is problematic. The ones who are substantially developed are the two ‘star-crossed’ lovers, Jeet Kumar ( Manish Dayal) and  Aalia Noor (Huma Qureshi). The leading Indian characters – Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi),  Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) – are tokens, as one can tell by their position in the credits.

The settings, sets, props and costumes are lovingly and [as far as I can tell] accurately recreated. Their presentation is in keeping with the heritage genre. Long shots and dramatic high angle shots present the impressive and richly furnished residence. Sequences frequently dwell on the impressive costumes and props. There is a contrast between the luxury of the British elite and the dwellings of the Indian servants, but the key British character are shown as sympathising and crossing this divide.

Early in the film we see Mountbatten and family flying into Delhi. Literally coming down to earth from out of the clouds like Gods in a Greek tragedy. We see Mountbatten vainly adjusting his uniform in a mirror. The film cuts to their arrival at the Viceroy Palace. Long shots and high angle shots present the impressive building and ceremony. A low angle shot emphasises Lord Mountbatten and Lady Edwina’s entrance into the palace.

Another early scene has Mountbatten donning his impressive all-white colonial uniform. Fatima Bhutto comment sharply on this sequence:

” In one of his first scenes, Mountbatten instructs his Indian valets that he never wants to spend more than two minutes getting dressed – fitting for the man who dismembered India in less than six weeks. As always, it is the Indians, not the British, who fail in the simplest of tasks set out for them (they take 13 minutes).”

The actual India, including the increasing violence between communities, is firmly outside the residence. The British, together with the audience, view this in the official private cinema, in newsreels. The first such insert was presented as the British sat looking at the cinema screen: thus in the correct 1.37:1 ratio. I thought at least the film get this right. But from then on in the various newsreel footage was cropped and stretched into the film’s 2.35:1 frame. Moreover this footage had been ‘treated’ with [what I assume was] CGI to include the cast members in the footage. The treatment of archive film in mainstream cinema continues to deteriorate. Later we watch recreations of contemporary newsreels followed by the actual news reel, again reframed and [I think] colourised..

The film actually opens with an introduction to the Viceroy Palace. A long shot pans across buildings to the Palace and then we enter to watch the servants [apparently 800] preparing for the arrival of the new Viceroy. This is typical heritage film, indulging in the impressive building, rich fittings and luxurious props. The dialogue by the servants and white colonial managers introduces the subject of independence: including some caustic lines on the British:

“war has exhausted them.”

This sequence also introduces the star crossed lovers, Jeep and Aalia. They are both from village in that key province, the Punjab; he a Hindu, she a Muslim. In fact they are a recurring presence in the film. Both adding to the plot but also providing a link across disparate sequences and, it would seem, a commentary on the key relationships between Muslim and Hindus.

Jeep and Aalia

Whilst the film does show both sides of the conflict the emphasis definitely seems to be on the problematic of the Muslim position. The earliest example of conflict is at an evening social for the servants where there are Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs enjoying music, singing and dancing. However, when Jeep attempts to dance with Aalia a fellow Muslim angrily demands that

‘you dance with your own kind’.

Later the earlier reports of communal violence is that instigated by Muslims against Hindus.

These antagonism and conflicts spread among the servants, who include all the of the main ethic/religious groupings: though there was no obvious sign of any dalits [untouchables] here. In one powerful sequence, using conventional montage, whilst Gandhi gives voice to his fears about conflict the servants, listening on the balcony, break into physical conflict.

But the conflict is always personalised in the characters of Jeep and Aalia. When Mountbatten returns from a visit to London to seek approval for partition Edwina sadly criticises the plan. Outside on the balcony Jeep and Aalia listen in dismay. As the servants lined up later to choose between the new India and Pakistan we see Jeep and Aalia embrace. There follows a series of scenes in conventional montage as the division of the property in the Palace takes place. At one point two librarians argue over Jane Austen novels. But this series is intercut with scenes of Jeep and Aalia high up in the Palace. They hold hands and he gives her a bangle to

“show out unity.”

They embrace and then go to seek permission from Aalia’s father for their union. The father (Om Puri) is a  Muslin but also a member of Congress. he is against partition but feels he must choose Pakistan. When Jeep and Aalia arrive they discover that Aalia’s official fiancé, Asif, has returned. He has been fighting for the British in the European war. He is also now the driver of Jinnah. Jeep and Azalea’s plans vanish.

The film’s central ‘upstairs’ plot is the dealing between the British, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. There are also dealings between the resident British elite and the newly arrived Mountbatten. The key relationship/confrontation is with General Ismay. To this is added Cyril Radcliff’s work in drawing up the line of partition. This triangle comes to a climax when Mountbatten discovers that there is a secret plan drawn up in 1945 by Winston Churchill which includes a map for a line of partition between Muslim and Hindu areas. The rationale behind this is Britain interests in a buffer zones between itself and the Soviet Union and the importance of oil supplies in the Middle East.

Here the film relies on a key study, based on Narendra Singh Sarila’s 2006 book ‘The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition’. The author was Mountbatten’s aide-de-camp and more recently researched the archives of the British Foreign Office. The plan in the ‘secret’ document is one drawn up by the previous Viceroy, General Wavell; though this is rather lost in the dialogue. However, in the film we have Radcliff telling the ‘secret’ to Mountbatten and then a confrontation between Mountbatten and Ismay. I rather doubt that this scene actually occurred and it seems unlikely that Mountbatten could have been completely ignorant of the plan.

Other historians record that there were plans, possibly several, for partitioning India: some dating earlier than 1945. Lord Wavell, the previous Governor-General, had the ‘breakdown plan’. Mountbatten himself produced a ‘first draft’ plan for partition rejected by Nehru, ‘Plan Balkan’; enough said! The film has a character explain that Jinnah knew of the 1945 version and this explained his intransigence. But both sides knew of these, as they had ‘moles’ reporting back to them on the British preparations and plans. The scene in the film is typical of melodrama, reducing events to individual characters and their actions: whereas at the time this was a policy of the British Government. Ismay tells Mountbatten in the film that the ‘secret plan’ was drawn up by Churchill. There may have been such a case, but what is well recorded is the close attention that the then current Prime Minister, Clem Atlee, paid in overseeing Mountbatten and the policy in the sub-continent. The aforementioned scene presents Mountbatten as innocent, if naïve. Descriptions of his contemporaries exclude any sense of naivety. And his knowledge of much of the preparation for partition deny him innocence. The films seems determined to present Mountbatten as a liberal, well meaning figure.

Mountbatten, Jinnah and the Press

Bhutto comments:

“The benevolence of the Mountbattens and, by association, the British Raj is laced throughout Chadha’s film'” [Here we had a Guardian misspelling, ‘Chanda’ not ‘Chadha’].

In line with film melodrama we have a hero and villains: to varying degrees, Ismay, Churchill and Jinnah. Bhutto comments on the last representation:

“Jinnah is at his Bela Lugosi finest, dark circles around his eyes and his silver hair roguishly slicked back. To divide India is a tragedy, Mountbatten sighs, how can we convince Jinnah not to? well, according to Chadha, you can’t. Jinnah, a successful barrister and leader of the Muslim Leaguer, is simply introduced to use a s “trouble maker”.”

Bhutto exaggerates again, but the representation of Jinnah is different from that of the Congress leaders. The meetings involving him are relatively formal, as his behaviour. We see Nehru relaxing and socialising with Mountbatten and Edwina. And when Gandhi appears the servants gather to pay him homage. Following which he offers Mountbatten some goat curd as a ‘treat’.

I think it is fair to state that partition was a reactionary policy and that the Muslim League bears much of the responsibility for this; in particular the ill-conceived ‘Two Nation Theory’. However, by 1947 the leaders of Congress, with the exception of Gandhi, had accepted that partition would happen; some of them supposing [ erroneously] that such a state would prove unviable and finally return to the Indian fold. But this type of complexity is beyond the films ability to address.

It is worth adding that it is clear in the film that Mountbatten and his advisors knew full well that the British intended to depart the sub-continent at formal independence with complete disregard for the growing violence across the sub-continent. Whilst film mourns the one million or more dead, it fails to ask why the British did not fulfil their obligations. i.e. dealing with a situation that they had created. The parallel with Palestine, where the British ‘divide and rule’ resulted in a settler regime, war and dispossession is glaring. And both partitions continue to haunt the contemporary world.

There are some well-praised scenes showing the decision of ‘spoils’ as the British prepare to leave; in particular dividing up the household goods in the Viceroy Palace. What gets little attention in the division of the armed forces between the two new states. This was completed in four weeks. A major factor in the military’s inability to stem violence. In fact, there are recorded cases in the Punjab where swift action by British troops and officer did forestall violence. But the precipitous disengagement of the British undermined this.

Refugees – a contemporary record

Films like Viceroy’s House give the impression that India was a seething cauldron of violence during Partition. The generality conceals a more complex situation. In fact, the most extreme violence occurred in two  disputed territories.

“By far, the most serious devastation took place in Punjab and Bengal. Elsewhere, events were of a lesser scale and simply incomparable to Punjab’s misery. Yet beyond the Punjabi epicentre, rioters wreaked havoc in many cities including Delhi, Bombay, Karachi and Quetta.

A few outbreaks of Partition violence even occurred in the south, which usually stayed remarkably untouched by the conflict unfolding in the north. Prince-ruled territories, especially Kashmir and Hyderabad, were afflicted, as well as the directly controlled British locales. This was nothing short of a continental disaster.” (The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, by Yasmin Khan, published by Yale University Press. 2007.)

The violence was not always spontaneous. There is plenty of evidence that violence was instigated and orchestrated by members of both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. The main intent is what we would today call ‘ethnic cleansing’, in order to create a majority for one side.

The film avoids this sort of analysis and favours doctored news reel and scenes of the refugees arriving at the Place. Here again Jeep and Aalia provide personal identification. And Lady Edwina and Lady Pamela show the British caring and attempting to alleviate suffering.

The film shows the Independence ceremonies for both India and Pakistan; some of the few sequences away from the Palace. There are also long shots of the refugee columns across the border areas. By this time Jeep has learned that Aalia apparently died in a train massacre. The film closes in a refugee camp, presumably in Delhi. The Mountbatten are there as is Nehru. He is assaulted by one distressed refugee: a scene to which Bhutto took particular objection. We see  Hindu woman arrive with a stretcher. This is Aalia, rescued from the train massacre in the manner argued over by Bhutto and Chadha. Just to heighten tension Jeep at this point is leaving the camp. Aalia, desperate to find him, grabs a microphone and calls him  over the loudspeaker system; the lovers are re-united. This trope is clearly designed to provide an slightly upbeat ending to a film about a major tragedy.

Clearly the violence was dreadful, over a million died; millions were dispossessed and turned into refugees. But the film’s depiction suggests a catastrophe and one with little explicit causation. As the great historian Eric Hobsbawm opined:

“This time it can be truly said that Britain ‘divided to rule’. (‘Age of Extremes’, 1994).

The rather one-sided study is strengthened in the end credits where a series of photographs and titles show that the director’s, Gurinder Chadha, grandmother and family were caught up in partition. She left the Punjab and was finally re-united with her family in an Indian refugee camp. This seems to subtly reinforce the sense that Pakistan is the problem. In retrospect Chadha would have better served the subject by dramatising her own family story. As it is we have an epic subject in the form popular on the small screen. Bhutto compares this film unfavourably with the earlier Gandhi (1982). That film does have the epic treatment the subject requires. I think it also has a better and more intelligent script. However Gandhi also presents Jinnah as the problem. And it also fails to demonstrate the British failure and oppression. The film does include the infamous Amritsar massacre, but like Viceroy’s House, it relies on a British actors and language, and frequently a British point of view. At one point Gandhi (an excellent Ben Kinsley) tells the Viceroy,

‘when the British leave we want you to leave as friends’!

It is worth noting that some of the footage of refugee columns looked as if it was taken from the sequences in Gandhi. The Hindu woman with a Muslim ‘daughter’ reminded me of the excellent Bombay (1995). And the use of the microphone by Aalia irresistibly reminded me of a far better sequence in The Battle of Algiers (1966): that a film that understands colonialism.

There are two important omissions in the film. One is any reference to the Indian National Army. And the other are the ‘prince-ruled’ territories referred to in the earlier quotation also omitted from the film. But here the recorded history shows that the British, including Mountbatten, were just as manipulative. And these actions exacerbated the situation. A key territory was Kashmir, whose allegiance was decided by the single ruler. Thus a conflict zone between India and Pakistan was crated and still today the people of Kashmir await self-determination.

Bhutto concludes her attack on the film with this comment:

“Viceroy’s House is the film of a deeply colonised imagination'”

One assumes that she is referring to the writings of Franz Fanon: in particular to ‘Black Skin White Masks’ (1967) and ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (1961). In the latter, in ‘On National Culture’, Fanon writes:

“If we wanted to trace in the works of native writers the difference phases which characterise this evolution we would find spread out before us a panorama on three levels. In the first phase, the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power.”

To be fair to Gurinder Chadha she is not ‘a native intellectual’ of the sub-continent. However, she clearly feels an involvement it its history, especially the period of partition. Moreover, in some ways the film is part of what has become known as ‘Diaspora cinema’: art works that give, or attempt to give, expression to a heritage culture. However, as is so often the case, the dominant culture of the imperial power are the ruling ideas.

Finally there is the BFI who contributed to the production funding. One circular publicising a season commemorating Indian Independence 75 years ago was highlighted by a plug for Viceroy’s House. ‘Bollywood 2.0’ and the accompanying ‘Song and Dance’ are programmes of cotemporary Indian cinema at the BFI Southbank in April and May. Meenakshi Shedde has discussed this cinema and the programmes in an article in the April Sight & Sound, ‘A World Within: The Other Indian Cinema’. It is not clear yet whether audiences in other parts of the territory will get to see these films? Among the offering are Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and Firaaq (2008), both films that address more recent communalism than the 1947 partition. The British heritage version seems a somewhat inapt trailer for these.

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