Seventy years ago next month, Britain lost an Empire. At the stroke of the midnight hour on 15 August 1947 its rule over the Indian subcontinent, by far her largest colony, came to an end. After months of political deadlock and escalating communal violence Britain’s last viceroy, with unseemly haste, agreed to divide the country in two, and the independent nations of Pakistan and India were simultaneously created.
The year 1947 presents a problem for simplifying historians and film makers. Was it a triumph of freedom allowing, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, for “the soul of a nation, long suppressed, to find utterance”? Or was it a disaster in terms of death and displacement, in which a million people died and perhaps 30-million people were displaced? How should a film maker commemorate such dichotomy for a modern audience? And how to apportion blame in a cinematically riveting way?
Into this challenge Viceroy’s House, a new film by the British Asian film maker Gurinder Chadha, has just been launched. It presents the history from the point of view of Lord Mountbatten (played by a honey-voiced Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson), who had been sent by a weary Prime Minister Clement Atlee to decisively extricate a bankrupt Britain from her colony. Chadha brings a personal element to the film – her family, Punjabi Indians, suffered from the trauma of forced migration, communal violence and shameful British callousness in shouldering responsibility by ensuring a controlled exit.
But Chadha grew up in England and has lived there all her life. She thus has been exposed to multiple interpretations of how history can be remembered. Knowing her background, it therefore puzzled me that her film has turned out the way it has. This is not to say that Viceroy’s House is necessarily a bad film, or that it whitewashes history. Its intentions certainly seem well meant. It’s just that it could have been so much bolder, more assertive,…