Viceroy's House

The end of an empire. The birth of two nations.

Buckingham Palace looks like a shed in comparison. In 1947, Lord Mountbatten’s vice-regal residence in India had 34 reception rooms, 10 dining rooms, a private cinema and acres of marble and gilding. Where better, then, to set an upstairs-downstairs tale of diplomats and their 500 servants during the last decadent days of the British Empire?

Poster for the historical drama Viceroy's HouseTo seal the Downton-Abbey-goes-to-Delhi conceit, director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) has cast Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten and Gillian Anderson as his wife, Edwina, in a drama that observes the politicking in the run-up to the partition of the Indian subcontinent into separate Hindu-majority Indiaand Muslim-majority Pakistan.

However, while the Mountbattens take tea on the lawn, a romance is brewing in the servants’ quarters between secretary Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim, and valet Jeet (Manish Dayal), who is Hindu. The course of true love is in peril, however, because Aalia’s father plans for her to marry the chauffeur of Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

The film begins as light comedy as the Mountbattens try to pave the way for the postwar handover by inviting more Indians to dinner and telling the chef to spice things up when he has proudly been cooking beef wellington for years. Anderson has unearthed a posh English accent as Lady Mountbattan, while Bonneville is the jolliest of viceroys, timing his valets as they race to dress him for ceremonial events.  oon, however, the Viceroy’s House is divided and the story takes on a weightier tone as the tectonic plates of India’s internecine politics crash. Muslims and Hindus engage in bloody battles in the streets – and even in the servants’ compound.

The film is more populist than intellectual – Chadha’s intention is to bring understanding of the devastating effect of Partition to a wider audience, with an easy ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ entry point. In her take, we see the long reach of Winston Churchill in the diplomatic machinations, with Michael Gambon playing General Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s military assistant during the Second World War. The oleaginous Ismay’s nickname is ‘Pug’ and he draws some deadly lines in the sand.

The carnage after Partition, with mass killings and 14 million refugees on the road, is shown in fiction and newsreel fact. And in a poignant moment in the end credits we realize that Chadha’s family were among those fleeing.

– Kate Muir, The Times
 

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