“They always want me to make Bend It Like Beckham again,” complains Gurinder Chada, the one-woman film industry who recently turned her iconic hit movie into a stage musical. While she was satisfying critics (and fans) who would rather she repeat the ebullient success of the past, she was also writing a new type of film for her and her partner Paul Mayeda Berges.
And so Viceroy’s House really marks a step up in her film making, her tilt at the epic “Raj” cinema as typified by Richard Attenborough’s Ghandi or the films of Merchant Ivory. However, Chada’s quietly subversive streak is at work, stabbing away at the cinema of Empire while bringing previously marginalised faces and stories to the centre of the action.
The titular Viceroy’s House is a magnificent palace – now the home of the Indian President – with a staff of thousands whom we see obediently at work in the opening sequences, sweeping the tennis court, polishing the cutlery and shining the floors.
The hubub is in preparation of the arrival of Lord Mountbatten – and Lady Edwina – who, in 1947, are taking up the position to oversee the imminent handover of India, the Empire’s jewel in the crown. For this is a film about that most over-looked of subjects: partition.
Casting the jovial Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten gives the film dashes of Downtown, a whiff of Upstairs Downstairs, but it also gives the Brits a bumbling pomposity, more concerned with a good dinner and the correct functioning of zips on a uniform than politics. Gillian Anderson as Lady Edwina is just marvellous, a physical performance of jutting chin and stiff backed practicality, although she does soften up in the presence of Neru.
Chada’s grand idea is to dramatise, within the confines of the palace, the traumatic events of partition, when the Brits (particularly Cyril Radcliffe, played as a rather hapless hack by Simon Callow) drew a line and created Pakistan as a separate Muslim nation. The reverberations of geo-politics thus ripple inside the halls and kitchens of Viceroy’s House – we even see the cutlery and the library books being divvied up.
Chada does an admirable job of making the politics look dramatically fascinating, feel digestible and remain entertaining. She does, however, chuck in a bit of a Tony/Maria, Romeo and Juliet-style story line involving a beautiful servant girl, Aalia (Huma Qureshi) and a Muslim man Jeet (Manish Dayal) and through these flimsy and their family troubles the woes of two nations are supposed to rest.
There is a lot going on here, and I have to say it is highly watchable stuff. However, a serious dissection of the politics and (what many see as) the tragedy of Partition and the evils of colonialism, it most certainly isn’t.
Hang around for the closing credits though, because Chada then brings it back to the even-more personal, with a brilliant coda that reveals what Partition did to her own family, a thumbnail sketch of remarkable warmth and power, the sort of thing Chada does best.
So while it’s not David Lean, Viceroy’s House nevertheless has a unique cinematic quality, an undimmable vitality that has always been the conviction of this film maker. For sure, some audiences would want an angrier film or a more rigorous look at Empire and its legacy, but for this Anglo-Indian director (an OBE, no less) diplomacy is clearly the better path. It’s not a reason to riot, but a film you can curl up on the sofa and watch in years to come, wondering how we ever lost the Empire but also marvelling at the cultures we gained from it.