When I learned of Gurinder Chadha’s next release, Viceroy’s House, I was pleased at the prospect of such a talented cast (Om Puri, Simon Callow, Michael Gambon, Hugh Bonneville), but I was also wary.
First, for attempting this topic on film (as opposed to a mini-series) – it’s such a complex, sprawling story, how to tell this small, but so very significant slice of it, and not make it too flimsy or scattered?
And then there’s the leading man. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Hugh Bonneville and loved him since back in Notting Hill, and more recently as the oft put-upon Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey. Just the other day I re-watched the series finale for the 3rd time, so it was a bit hard to hear that voice and forget the Earl in place of the Viceroy.
Chadha opens with a premise of giving Richard and Edwina the benefit of the doubt, depicting them as two decent, well-meaning (if somewhat oblivious) people, coming to India to do what they saw as a good thing.
She uses them and their story as the central touchstone by which to tell the story of India and Pakistan’s birth, and the very difficult, bloody delivery that it was.
The Viceroy’s residence, with its 500+ indoor staff alone, is a Whitman’s Sampler of all the people of India. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Punjabis, Bengalis and so on, all hard at work to keep the massive complex gleaming and the residents crisply dressed and fed. Some staff, by way of the access to the major political players they serve, find themselves with front row views of history in the making as they serve tea or show the Mountbattens their new home.
At first, there’s excitement and hope, as the young lovers at the heart of the film – Jeet and Alia, Hindu boy, Muslim girl – peer through a keyhole at an early meeting, he asks her what’s the first thing she’ll do after that stroke of midnight in the newly free India.
But the eager anticipation of Jeet, Alia and the staff, indeed of the Mountbattens, soon vanishes as it becomes evident that India will be split, to make way for the Muslim nation of Pakistan.
The riots and violence happening in the Punjab and Bombay and Delhi soon are mirrored in the staff compound, with fights and worse.
My incomplete knowledge of what led up to 1947 and what happened has been formed largely by reference to them by Indian (and a few British) writers and by a lot of fiction on the page and screen (Midnight’s Children, The Ice Candy Man, Sacred Games, The Raj Quartet, Deepa Mehta’s 1947 / Earth, Granada TV’s The Jewel in the Crown, etc etc) so I’m not in a position to say how closely I think Gurinder Chadha hews to the facts or how wide she deviates from them – if at all.
I was, though, greatly surprised at the revelation of a document referred to in the film, wherein the nation of Pakistan was already envisioned by Winston Churchill and Co. at the end of World War II (two years earlier), supposedly as a counterbalance to the Soviets (and access to oil) lest India get too close to them. The book Chadha has pointed to Narendra Singh Sarila’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, for this revelation of Churchill’s hand in matters which apparently came about after some documents were discovered in the British Library. The bit about having access to oil, the way it was placed there, felt somewhat tacked on and a rather glaring nod to our times.
When the film trailer came out earlier this year, I saw some sniffy comments online to the effect of “Ha ha, no thanks, I’ll pass on this” and I wondered to myself “Could it be that bad? Have I seen this kind of thing before?”
Well, my answers are no, and no.
In spite of however many star-crossed lovers I’ve seen in films set in India, especially those where one half of the couple comes from the “wrong” religion, and in spite of the fact that we have to believe the history of several years Jeet and Alia already have, I did come to care enough about this couple to wonder what would happen to them. A lot of the emotional weight for this relationship is carried on the shoulders of actor Manish Dayal (The Hundred Foot Journey). He’s also the bridge for us between the world of the Viceroy and his wife, and the Indian staff who live together in their own compound.
And by the end of the film, as things fall so very horribly apart, I was in tears at the news reel footage and scenes the director had recreated and reimagined. The terror, the confusion, the fear, the loss – even if it’s only a fraction of what people experienced, it was enough to break your heart, especially when you consider some of the low points in the 70 years since.
And unlike the sepia shades or visual remove with which these events are often portrayed, here the colors have that crisp brightness and sharpness I always seem to notice in photos people take in Ladakh. Cloudless blue skies, starched white uniforms, the lively reds and warm gold of the uniforms, and the ochre of the buildings, it was all very alive.
The late Om Puri, as Alia’s blind father, is his usual effortless good self in what must have been one of his last films. It just occurs to me that the first time I ever saw him on screen was in a brief appearance in the first episode of the Granada TV adaptation of Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown eons ago.
One major problem I have is with the prosthetics for the actor Neeraj Kabi (Ship of Theseus) who played Gandhi. It must be pressure enough to play the part of a revered historical figure, and one who has already been brought to life on film by Sir Ben Kingsley, but to be saddled with such ill-fitting dentures which challenge your speech, that was a serious distraction which undermined his performance (which is a shame, given how lovely his work was as the monk in Ship of Theseus).
AR Rahman has done the soundtrack, and his work is as moving and impeccable as always. Quite a few of the pieces are sweeping, orchestral compositions. It was sweet to see wonderful Hansraj Hans after a long time, in a brief appearance as a musician at an engagement party in the staff quarters.
This is certainly the most sober of Gurinder Chadha’s films. With so much ground to cover, and so many characters to introduce, for me, the film felt uneven at times. While I certainly saw the grandeur of the remains of Empire in Bombay and all that entails, and was moved by the portrayal of the gruesome unravelling of events after that historic midnight, I thought we didn’t get enough of many of the characters to feel we knew them or cared about them. They felt flat. The most fleshed out people are Jeet and the Viceroy, and honestly, there was not enough revealed about them either. Although Bend It Like Beckham was primarily a comedy, at the end of it, I felt I knew Jess and her family and her coach and friends much moreso than anyone in Viceroy’s House.
Would I watch it again? Actually, I would. I’d like to see what my reaction is the second time around, and it’s still quite a spectacle to behold, with strong performances by the cast, supported by AR Rahman’s music, which is why I’d recommend it.
You can see a short “making of” featurette here.
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Cast: Huma Qureshi, Manish Dayal, Om Puri, Gillian Anderson, Hugh Bonneville, Michael Gambon, Samrat Chakrabarti
Now in theaters & on-demand