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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

"Viceroy's House", a film by Gurinder Chadha

"Viceroy’s House" begins with a sunset in Delhi in 1947. After three centuries in India the British have announced that they are leaving. (Not for reasons of newly-found benevolence, but because after their losses in WWII, they cannot afford India any longer.) Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India (1947) and the first Governor-General of independent India (1947–48), his wife Edwina and their daughter Pamela have arrived in India. There are some wry lines about Mountbatten's new job as well as about India. For example, "Churchill called this the worst job in the world." And another addressed to Edwina "Welcome to the infernal heat, my dear." The library "reeks of failed negotiations".

This film joins the ranks of the many stories of Partition and its major players: for example, Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi”, the film “Jinnah”, stories of Partition by Bhisham Sahni, Khushwant Singh, Sadat Hasan Manto. A more recent film, Deepa Mehta’s “Midnight’s Children” based on Salman Rushdie’s Booker prize winning book, starts with Independence / Partition and is more a story of post-Independence India.

In Viceroy’s House, we see India and the leaders of India’s independence movement through the Mountbattens’ eyes. They are portrayed as wanting to do their best for a country they did not want divided. The Indian leaders appear one by one. Nehru, who accuses the British of splitting the nation with their divide and rule policy, fostering it with separate schools, separate text books. Gandhi, who voices his enduring message that we need more than Reason to overcome these differences; we need Love. Jinnah who is steadfast in his claim for a separate Muslim country. Communal tensions are escalating. There are fires in Rawalpindi from Hindu-Muslim-Sikh clashes. Violence is escalating day by day in Bengal, compounded by famine. Gutters in Lahore are flowing like rivers with blood. The British decide that it is in their best interest to leave as soon as possible. The partition plan comes to be called the Mountbatten plan. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who was appointed chair of the boundary committee, arrives in India for the first time, and is assigned the task of deciding where the border should be between India and the to-be-formed Pakistan. W.H. Auden’s poem “Partition” captures his plight, not charitably. Ram Madhvani, director of the film “Neerja” has made a short film called The Bloody Line based on the poem. We hear of the common man's plight and woes from the Indian staff at the Viceroy's house. With echoes of Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh”, one man asks another "What country will our village be in?"

The romantic subplot of a forbidden love doesn’t add much to the film. But we must have romance, I suppose. The great Om Puri plays the role of Aalia’s father, Ali Rahim Noor. We learn that Jeet Kumar, Aalia’s admirer, was earlier a police officer in Punjab who helped carry messages between the jailed father and his family. They reminisce that Jeet read him Dickens, “David Copperfield.” How does he feel about his new job at the Viceroy’s House, asks the father. "I have Great Expectations”, quips Jeet. The film credits at the end say that it was based on two books. The first is "Freedom at Midnight" by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (1975), a book that I've seen in every book shop in India from when I was a child. The second is one that I learned of for the first time, "In the Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition" by Narendra Singh Sarila (2006), based on documents Sarila came across in the Oriental and Indian collection of the British Library, London in 1997.

Sarila was an aide-de-camp to Mountbatten, served in the Indian Foreign Service, and hails from a princely family. His book is the source of an interesting thesis that Partition was a foregone conclusion, decided upon by Churchill two years prior to 1947 as a means to gain control over the Persian Gulf and its oil, based on interactions with Nehru and separately Jinnah during the Second World War. Mountbatten had not been informed of this, and felt used, betrayed. Sarila’s book has received mixed reviews in various places, although all acknowledge the amount of research that has gone into these previously classified newly released documents. A review in the UK's Telegraph says that Sarila "presents it as a series of blunders by Nehru and the Congress party," adding that "Sarila's contribution to scholarship is to emphasise the role of British strategic interests in the region; a continuation of the 'Great Game' of keeping Russia out of the subcontinent, in order to safeguard the oil fields of the Middle East, the 'wells of power'." A few days after August 15, 1947, the day of India’s independence from the British, the borders were announced, on August 18, 1947, triggering the largest mass migration in human history. 14 million people were displaced, more than 1 million died. It is probably no coincidence that Chadha’s movie, named “Partition: 1947” in the Indian release, premiered in India on August 18 of this year, the 70th anniversary.

This movie has provoked some ire, notably by Fatima Bhutto, writer and granddaughter of the slain Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. She slammed the film, accusing the director Gurinder Chadha of not depicting the freedom struggle, only the Hindu-Muslim violence. Having read both Bhutto's piece and Chadha’s response, and now having seen the film, I feel her accusations are somewhat unreasonable, perhaps a case of shooting the messenger.

After all, Partition did happen. Jinnah did insist on a separate country. Lives were torn apart. We continue to feel the terrible pain. And these stories must be told, from whichever perspective an artist chooses. If Chadha chooses to present it through the eyes of the Mountbattens, this is her prerogative. Here’s to more such stories being told, as in the 1947 Partition Archive.

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