The expectations I had when I sat down in front of the big screen were not fulfilled because the film was different. I had expected a somewhat traditional romance within the story that envelopes different strands of storytelling.
In short (for those who are afraid of spoilers), it was:
- frightening and upsetting
- historically accurate (compared with what I know through my studies in Indology and British Studies)
- surprisingly honest
For those who are not afraid of spoilers: continue down below.
I do not know a time in which India was not divided. I have ever only known India and Pakistan as two different countries and somewhat part-time mortal enemies (without wanting to get into an endless discussion about religion and beliefs - I think it is so incredibly sad and pointless that so many people have been dying worldwide due to an argument about whose god/s is/are better). "Viceroy's House" sheds light on a turbulent, bloody, horrible part of India's history that became Pakistan's history, too. In the scene when the household is being divided, it also shows the senselessness and lunacy, the hectic with which the subcontinent was parted in two... or three... or rather four (?) parts, if we count West-Pakistan, East Pakistan, India and Karachi as separate entities.
The scenes of the fleeing people, the hopelessness in some of the people's eyes upon hearing the dismal news from burned homes, massacred children was partly acted and partly provided through historical film-material.
I had known that it was the biggest mass-flight in history, but to read of 14 Million people losing their home, the place they had lived in with their families sometimes for generations, and to read of 1 Million dead people saddened me deeply. The film did not spare the audience from the view of dead bodies, neither of men, nor women, nor babies. For someone who feels sometimes like crying when watching the news, the film was a bit more than goose-bumping.
The difficult love story of Jeet and Aalia is intertwined with the more heartwarming story of the Mountbattens who are depicted as honest, well-meaning people who were trying to make the best decisions for a country that had been neglected, to say the least, by the British during their rule. They give you the positive moments in this film when you think, "wow, they actually tried", which makes it so much more unbearable to see them being used. There is some pathos in the way the Mountbattens fight for the people and in the way Jeet and Aalia are reunited after losing everything they ever had - a home, family, their future - but it is a much needed against the harrowing historical film-material that makes you want to cry and rant and scream at the unfairness of it all. Especially when you are from the future, so to say, and know how much these two new countries have... butted heads ever since.
In order to steer the subject away from the politics a little, I want to come to something that I really liked in the film: the casting. Not only is it great to see that they tried to cast the actors according to the likeness they had with the originals, but that they also considered the skillset of the actor. Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten is not a perfect visual match, he is, though, perfect in his role as Mountbatten (I guess after Downton Abbey this film is "just" the next historical step towards our times). He portraits the amiable, yet determined nature of the Viceroy with natural ease and is believable in his role. You feel with him, especially when he discovers that he has been used by his own government and that his name will forever stand for a plan that divided a country for the benefit of Great Britain. "Divide and Rule" comes as a flashback like a brick to the head.
Mountbatten's wife, portrayed by Gillian Anderson, is cast visually as well as actor-wise perfectly. She walks the line between subversiveness and submissiveness - arguing intelligently and strategically with and against her husband, and then again supporting him in order to not divide country and people further. She knows when she has lost, but she is always the voice of reason and humanity - and she is headstrong, much more a politician than her husband.
The daughter, played by Lily Travers, is also cast for her likeness with the original and has a supportive character. She is not included in the discussions and is more or less just "there". She seems to be included because there was a historical model for her, and in one scene she acts as a conduit for her father's helplessness when he lashes out at her for interrupting a conversation. For the film, she was not absolutely necessary, though.
Jeet and Aalia, on the other hand, are important. Very important. By the means of these two characters, the anguish, grief and sorrow of the Indian people are made palpable to the audience. Their tears and heartrend are hard to see because they are inherently likeable. Jeet is a Hindu and Aalia is a Muslim. Those who have seen Veer and Zaara know how Bollywood sees the lovestory between a Muslim and a Hindu - The family is against it, which leads to a prison sentence, a human-rights lawyer and very emotional songs. "Viceroy's House" shows families that are not against their marriage, a pair that does not care whether the person they marry is Muslim or Hindu. What separates them are entities out of their control, fueled by religious hatred and insecurity, led by figureheads that were more into power than into caring for the people they should have been working for. Jeet, the honest, good-hearted ex-police officer is played by Manish Dayal. Jeet loses his whole family, his sisters, his nieces and nephews, his mother when his hometown is reduced to cinders. The short, clipped information that is given as to what has happened in his home village makes you envision the most horrible of fates for everyone. Aalia, an independent woman who supports her blind father (who in turn had supported Gandhi) is played by Huma Qureshi. She loses her father to a massacre on the night-train to Lahore, which she escapes only because her father pushes her from the still running train. The scene of Jeet and Aalia finding each other in a camp is heart-wrenching - all this loss and needless bloodshed in their lives have scarred them -, but it is also uplifting and hope-giving to see that there is a way out of this horror: love.
Before the end-credits, the audience is shown slides of facts, containing the losses, the bloodshed, in short: the horror in numbers. And it shows history coming full circle: Gurinder Chadha, the director and co-writer of this film, is a grandchild of one of 14 Million refugees that lost house and home.
All in all, I can say that the film moved me. It seemed to me an attempt at neutrality and historical correctness. It showed the hard negotiations and the political discussions that were held. It shows the pampered life of the British and has them called "rats that flee the sinking ship". The film also shows the unwillingness of the parties to work together and how this unearthed in the squabbles and fisticuffs between household-staff members. The film doled out blame to every party, except maybe Gandhi - an old man without teeth who only speaks of unity and peace makes not for a good target. The movie also showed that there were good people in all the fractions - Aalia and her father who wanted only peace, the cook who wanted Pakistan without being aggressive about it, the Hindus had their heroes in Jeet and Gandhi and the British in Lord Mountbatten and his wife. This is why I say, it was an attempt at neutrality and historical correctness.