For the second time in just four months, the British Empire is losing a territory in cinemas. First, it was Botswana in A United Kingdom, now it’s the turn of India in Viceroy’s House. What was Bechuanaland became Botswana in 1966 when the country became independent: nearly 20 years before, India made the same transition, alongside partition which saw the founding of the state of Pakistan.
Viceroy’s House starts with the arrival of the final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), at the titular seat of power in Delhi. His one and only task is to ensure a smooth transition of power as India becomes a country in its own right. One of the major obstacles he faces is the religious divide in the country: Muslim statesman, Jinna, wants a separate country, Pakistan, for his community, which represents a fifth of the population. Also in the house are around 500 servants and officials, all Indian and all from different religious groups.
The film is a deeply personal project for its director Gurinder Chadha, whose ancestral home is in the foothills of the Himalayas, the part of Punjab that became Pakistan. Her family left as refugees and, although born in Kenya, she was raised in London, listening to her grandmother’s stories of The Partition. Twelve years since the idea of making a film on the subject first took hold, she’s devoted herself to promoting it enthusiastically over the past few weeks and you have to admire her dedication.
The sad thing is that the project is just too personal, too close to her heart. And the result is profoundly conventional and so full of familiar tropes that it borders dangerously on the clichéd. There’s the upstairs/downstairs parallel plots, with Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson) living upstairs in Viceroy’s House with their daughter and senior British officials. While that’s where the major political events take place, there has to be a story for downstairs, the servants’ territory, so we’re given a pseudo-Romeo And Juliet. Mountbatten’s new manservant, Jeet (Manish Dyal) falls for the daughter’s assistant, Alia (Huma Qureshi) and all manner of obstacles are put in their way. Like her having to marry somebody else, chosen by her father (the late Om Puri), or her leaving during Partition and being killed during a massacre on a train. Yet somehow we keep looking for her to return ……
Chadha has simply tried to do too much, and has ended up falling back on convention to tell an unnecessarily complicated story. There’s two films desperately trying to get out here, but they’ve been crammed into one and can’t escape. Yet there is a fascinating story to be told and it’s told in just a few captions at the end. Her grandmother’s own life – how she was a refugee, lost her daughter and eventually found her – would have more than satisfied the director’s ambition to make a film about the ordinary people affected by Partition.
History, we’re told in the opening credits, is written by the victors, but it’s difficult to see who they are in Viceroy’s House – if anybody. What’s sadly all too apparent is that this is a film which had plenty going for it but, somewhere along the line, became bogged down in the ordinary and the tedious. It makes for a disappointing spectacle.
Viceroy’s House is released in cinemas on Friday, 3 March.