Note from the editors: If you’ve been following the discussion around Gurinder Chadha’s partition film Viceroy’s House you’ll know that it has divided opinion. We were hugely disappointed with the film – and on finding our thoughts echoed in that Guardian review by Fatima Bhutto, pulled our own review to share that on social media instead (you can see our Facebook post here). One of our writers – journalist and author Ehsan Masood – has a different take on the film. So if you haven’t seen it yet, or are enjoying the debate it’s generated, we’re pleased to bring you his review below.
“Moving and epic.”
That is the verdict, which boldly adorns a cinema-sized publicity poster for Viceroy’s House. The judgement comes from Saga, the magazine for my own generation of (nearly) 50-somethings. And yet if this film is an epic, the choice of this particular review for the poster indicated to me that a swathe of viewers don’t seem to think so.
Viceroy’s House, which opened in London on 3 March, suffers from several problems, which become all too apparent from the opening scenes. It is trying to be two films. There is Viceroy’s House, the political drama of partition; and then there’s Viceroy’s House, the story of forbidden love.
Director Gurinder Chadha does a creditable job with the latter. The encounter between Aalia (Huma Qureshi) and Jeet (Manish Dayal) comes alive especially in the second half. But it is as a chronicler of the end of empire where Chadha struggles.
A central problem is that Mountbatten’s contribution to freedom for India and Pakistan lasted all of five months, from his arrival in Delhi in March to independence in August 1947. He had no role in the decades-long build up to partition. Richard Attenborough’s solution in Gandhi (1983) was to assign a largely forgettable part for Peter Harlowe as the last viceroy.
This is a wrong that Chadha seeks to right, but the result is to exaggerate his place at the expense of others.
A second problem is the casting. Chadha has a superb eye for choosing and directing actors, which audiences will readily laugh at. She has a genius for comic timing and some of the film’s funniest moments involve Simon Callow in the role of the hapless lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, called on by Mountbatten to “draw a line through peoples’ houses” as the chairman of the Boundary Commission.
But viewers will not be expecting comedy from Nehru, played by Tanveer Ghani; nor from Gandhi, played by Neeraj Kabi. When Ghani says: “I’ve spent 9 years of my life in British jails”, what viewers see is someone more likely to have spent a decade hanging around British boardrooms. Worse is to come with his butchered rendition of Nehru’s “tryst with destiny” speech.
Equally controversial is the choice of the avuncular Hugh Bonneville (Paddington Bear; W1A) in the title role. Mountbatten, according to his official biographer Philip Ziegler, was complex. Yes, he was approachable and likeable to some extent, but you don’t get to become commander of Allied naval operations in Asia during World War II unless you are simultaneously ambitious, driven and capable of manipulation and chicanery. Bonneville’s Mountbatten, in contrast, is a more one-dimensional individual, though clearly a tortured one.
Still, Chadha’s film does attempt to tread new ground. In Viceroy’s House we learn that Mountbatten and Edwina were left-leaning and that Mountbatten was shafted by his own government. For Chadha, Mountbatten is to India what T.E. Lawrence was to Arabia.
All things considered, policy processes are fiendishly difficult to bring to the big screen. Classics such as All the President’s Men are rare in part because incremental changes and a revolving cast of characters do not translate well onto celluloid.
The makers of Argo understood this. Ben Affleck’s film sensibly avoids retelling the political history of Iran and the West, as it maintains a laser-like focus on the fate of American hostages in revolutionary Iran.
Chadha could have taken a similar course, but she aimed higher. The result is a watchable lament to the erosion of multicultural India, which breaks fresh ground in trying to rehabilitate a man much-derided in Asia and long-forgotten by audiences at home. But, and inspite of Saga’s recommendation, Viceroy’s House does not deliver an historical epic.
That accolade must remain with Gandhi, at least for now.
By Ehsan Masood.
Ehsan Masood is the author of The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making and Unmaking of the Modern World. Find him on Twitter @EhsanMasood
Posted on 15 March 2017
*This article was amended on 16 March 2017.