Viceroy's House

 

            1947.  Great Britain has ruled India for three centuries, but World War II changed everything.  Besides the tide of history favoring the colonies overthrowing colonial rule, England was just too depleted to maintain its former world empire.  So India is to be given its independence, and the last appointed Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), is sent to oversee the peaceful transition.  The problem is that India is anything but at peace.

            The British rule tended to artificially unite three distinct but disparate factions:  Hindu (the majority religion), Sikh (the equivalent of European Protestantism, a 15th-century breakoff from the Hindus in protest of the caste system), and Muslim (concentrated largely in the northern and western provinces).  When Lord Mountbatten arrived, he found not a united India, but an entire subcontinent ready to explode into chaos.  The Hindu faction led by Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), and the Muslim faction led by Jinnah (Denzil Smith), refused to agree. Not even the great Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) could persuade them to present a united front.  Nehru, naturally, wanted a united India under his rule, with the Muslims consigned to a perpetual minority.  Jinnah wanted no less than an independent state of Pakistan, that would consist of every province with a majority Muslim population.  (The Sikhs seemed to be left out of the dicussion entirely.) Both sides, realizing the power vacuum that would follow the British departure, refused to compromise.  Already riots were beginning throughout the land, and it appeared that the whole subcontinent was going to plunge into the Abyss of ethnic violence. 

            Just barely, Lord Mountbatten was able to forge an agreement, that would, in fact, create a separate Pakistan, but a divided one, with not nearly the territory Jinnah wanted, but he finally decided that half a loaf was better than none.  Lord Mountbatten's plan, which bore his name, was not really his ideal, either, particularly when he discovered that Churchill had basically drawn up the map before the War even ended, which envisioned Pakistan as a buffer state to keep the Soviet menace at bay (yes, we started fighting the Cold War even before the bullets stopped flying).

            Lord Mountbatten is shown with a very smart, capable wife, Lady Edwina (Gillian Anderson), who many times played Sarah listening at the door of Abraham's tent, inserting herself into the negotiations in a way most unusual for the 1940's.  The basic conflict is underscored by a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet romance, between a Muslim aide to Lady Edwina and a Hindu aide to Lord Mountbatten.  It makes for a Downton Abbey/Upstairs/Downstairs kind of feel, but Director Gurinder Chadha (the granddaughter of one of the many refugees during that period) is unafraid to cast the struggle into both large-scale geopolitical and small-scope human terms.  Her depiction of India in 1947 is mesmerizing, from the teeming streets to the bustling marketplaces to the vestiges of colonialism still abundantly evident.  It's a great history lesson, but also a good story, well-told.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  If the United States were to divide into ethnic factions, how many divisions would there be?

2)                  In the retrospect of 70 years, how well has the India/Pakistan division worked?

3)                  In the retrospect of 70 years, how well has the Israel/Palestine division worked?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association