Viceroy's House: What You Need To Know
The role of the British government in the partition of India – and the bloodshed that followed – has long been one of the most controversial episodes in the history of what was formerly the British Empire. After the Second World War, with Britain lacking both the financial resources and the political impetus needed to maintain control over the vast Indian subcontinent, a plan was drawn up that would see British rule withdrawn and power handed to a a newly-formed Indian government. However, while Gandhi's vision of an independent India based on religious pluralism was originally seen as the most desirable outcome, the escalating conflict between supporters of Gandhi's largely Hindu Indian National Congress and The Muslim League, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, led the British to decide that it would be politically expedient to divide the country into a Hindu-controlled state of India and a new, Muslim-controlled state of Pakistan.
The problem was that Muslims and Hindus, as well as Sikhs, had been living harmoniously in communities of mixed religious denominations for hundreds of years, and the arbitrarily-drawn border between the two states led not only to one of the largest mass-migrations in modern history, but also a horrific outbreak of violence between Muslims and Hindus, particularly in the areas that bordered the newly-created West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
For many years, historians and critics of British colonialism have viewed the British government's haste to exit India - as well as the 'divide-and-rule' approach by the British which sought to separate communities based on religious denomination - as the key causes behind the violence. In particular, the role of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy to India overseeing the transition and a key figure in the Indian Independence Act - is one that has drawn sharp criticism from all quarters in India.
However, a new film based on Mountbatten's time in India seeks to challenge the accepted view of history by suggesting that it was Winston Churchill, not Mountbatten, who was the key figure in drawing the arbitrary border lines, motivated by a belief that The Muslim League was best-placed to be a political ally and protect the strategically important port of Karachi from the Russians.
Viceroy's House arrives in stores on Monday (you can order your copy here in our online store), here's everything you need to know...
Who's in it?
Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson take on the lead roles of Lord and Lady Mountbatten, alongside a cast that includes Michael Gambon, Denzil Smith, Simon Callow, Manish Dayal, Huma Quereshi, Sarah-Jane Dias and Om Puri.
And who's directing?
British-Indian director Gurinda Chadha, perhaps best-known as the woman behind the camera on Bend It Like Beckham, both directs and co-writes the film's script, with the other writing credits for the screenplay going to her husband Paul Mayeda Berges and Byzantium writer Moira Buffini.
What's the plot?
The film essentially weaves two stories into its narrative – a historical account of Lord Mountbatten's efforts to negotiate a solution to the independence deal that will guarantee a peaceful transition of power, and a fictional love story between two of Mountbatten's staff, a Hindu boy named Jeet and a Muslim girl, Aalia, which serves as a human-scale microcosm of the social impact of partition on India's communities.
Mountbatten arrives in India and sets about the task of carrying out the orders of Clement Atlee's government who, fearing an impending civil war between India's Muslims and Hindus, has set a timeframe of just five weeks to find a way of amicably drawing a border between territories to create the new state of Pakistan. Assisting him in the task is General Hastings “Pug” Ismay (Gambon), a former chief-of-staff in Winston Churchill's wartime government. The pair recruit English lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, who is tasked with travelling through the border regions and drawing a line that minimises conflict between the Hindu and Muslim communities.
However, after a trip to Punjab a harassed-looking Radcliffe returns to Delhi and announces to Ismay that the task is far too complex to be completed in the short timeframe he has been given. However, Ismay, as it turns out, has a backup plan, producing a map drawn up under the orders of the former Prime Minister Churchill, with the border already drawn, insisting that if a new border cannot be drawn, this is the one that will be used, since it hands control of Karachi to Jinnah, who the British military believe to be a better option to prevent the port city falling into the hands of the Soviet Union, thereby giving them access to the oil fields in the Persian gulf. Crucially, Mountbatten is kept in the dark about Churchill's map, and is furious when he finds out.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Jeet and Aalia continues to bloom, but this too is fraught with tensions in the face of resistance from some members of their families - particularly Aalia's mother, a partisan supporter of The Muslim League and the creation of a Pakistani state – who disapproves of their romance.
Does it deliver?
Chadha's film has been met with some opposition from historians who argue that the film is an attempt to absolve Lord Mountbatten of responsibility for his role in the violence that followed Britain's exit from India. In the director's defence, her take on the story is one based on a book by Narendra Singh Sarila, which in turn makes its assertions based on a handful of declassified documents from the British Library indicating Churchill's involvement.
Viceroy's House doesn't dwell on the violence that resulted from the partition - mostly all we see or hear of this is via the various Pathe newsreels that intersperse the film - but where the film does succeed is in illustrating some of the human cost of the political turmoil, particularly in the communities which, having lived together in harmony for years, suddenly face a choice between allegiance to their neighbours, or to to their religion.
The film features some stunning cinematography throughout courtesy of Ben Smithard, an excellent soundtrack from A. R. Rahman and some outstanding performances from its cast, even if it is sometimes difficult to forget that Bonneville is playing Lord Mountbatten, not Downton Abbey's Lord Grantham. If nothing else, Viceroy's House provides an accessible entry point to the story of Britain's role in India which makes for absorbing and often enchanting viewing, but it's worth remembering that other versions of the story are available.