On seeing the trailer, I thought this may be a romanticised version of the events. I may have given it a miss if it hadn’t been directed by Gurinder Chadha who tends to direct films with a little bit of her story in them. And so is the case with Viceroy’s House, which very much depicts more of India’s version of events when the British gave India back to the Indians.
Maybe I need to see it again to find the lighter bits. There are funny moments, even in the face of adversity, as is so often the case. The part where the contents of Viceroy’s House are being split 80:20 for India:Pakistan, right down to the Jane Austin books is both amusing and startling.
These moments are fleeting though. It is hard to find them while watching my country being ripped in two and hungry refugees coming into being. I learnt so much and whereas some of it maybe fiction, my subsequent research proves a lot to be true.
To divide us on religious ground is against the will of God.
Partly because partition was never talked about during my upbringing, but mostly because I haven’t troubled myself to look, I had no idea the India was ruled by the British for over 200 years. Because I’d never given it much thought, I’d kind of assumed we’d invited the Brits until a decade or two ago chatting to an Irish person who said, ‘you must feel the same about the Brits, they came over and ripped your country up too.’
Just before this film came out, I happened to catch an episode of Who Do You Think You Are which I haven’t seen for years. It featured actress Sunetra Sarker, who in an hour-long episode went from distinctly Liverpudlian to distinctly Indian. Her attitude softened and she ended the 60 minutes coming across as a wonderfully proud Scouser and a gentle Indian. I learnt more about the partition in the first 10 minutes than I ever knew because of her ancestor’s involvement in the freedom movement. They knew Ghandi!
In the film, it’s delightful and yet poignant to see Om Puri in probably his last film before he died this year. He plays a former freedom activist.
It is refreshing to see a film where Churchill comes across less than statesman-like, indeed as plotting a self-serving solution. I never understand why he appears on Britain’s best Britons list just because he was unfortunate enough to be Prime Minister during WW2. He seemed a bit of a waverer, leaving the Conservatives, to join the Liberal party, then leaving politics, then coming back to the Conservatives.
Lord Mountbatten on the other hand, comes out as a saint. (Maybe because his daughter was a consultant on the film?) As the last Viceroy of India, he is charged with handing the country back to the Indians. He bought that date forward a year, fearing civil war, which then pretty much came anyway. Against his better judgement, it seems, he let the Muslim leader have a small separate country, Pakistan as the three main Indian leaders (representing Sikh, Muslim and the majority Hindu, communities) could not agree. And that’s where the trouble started.
Mountbatten did stay on in India for a while afterwards though.
Before I was an Indian, now I’m a Muslim
The much commented upon love story that runs through the film I felt was unnecessary but it did serve to show us how similar we all are. A Muslim girl separated from her Hindu childhood sweetheart as they now have to live in different countries for their own safety. No-one wants to be separated from the people they love and most of us have a robust longing to protect those dear to us.
For my part, the tears really started flooding as the heart breaking stories of complete villages being wiped out and 1000s being killed as religious civil unrest begins. This in a country before it is independent where once people from different religions lived quite happily side by side. What if the Brits just left the Indians to decide on how their country should be split and work out logistics?
It’s rare to be at a daytime showing of a film where no one leaves when it ends. There is stunned silence even after the credits have rolled from a middle-aged audience. I have to leave though because the tears were starting again and I find myself in the loo sobbing uncontrollably before I can leave the cinema. The tears carry on days after seeing the film, each time I think of it. Partly because I’m reminded that lives were lost unnecessarily and partly because I really should know more about my country.
People look at me differently to how I look at myself – Gurinder Chadha
In my case, maybe they still do.