The last gasps of Empire by Richard Jones

A look at Viceroy’s House (PG)

viceroyWHERE would we be without the bumbling, albeit well-meaning, Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey?

Here he is in India – well, actor Hugh Bonneville is anyway – as Britain’s last Viceroy to India, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

No doubt it’s difficult to cast aside one persona and take up another yet Bonneville plays Mountbatten perfectly with his civility and humour to the fore.

He’s left rural England for New Delhi to oversee the last six months of Great Britain’s rule over the richest outpost of her great Empire.

The Viceroy pulls rank only when absolutely necessary as director Gurinder Chadra uses actual footage to show us the full horror of the sub-continent’s 1947 Partition struggles.

And she has the main players – Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi – meeting at the massive Viceroy’s House (should that be ‘palace’) and quarrelling over the path to independence: effectively, the road to partitioning into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India.

There’s just a few short weeks to sort out the whole mess as riots, mass killings and wholesale arson engulfs various cities and districts right throughout India.

Mountbatten has a tough chief of staff-type military attaché in General ‘Pug” Ismay (Michael Gambon) who looks after the administrative stuff before hot shot constitutional lawyer Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow) arrives on the scene.

Radcliffe’s task is to re-arrange the geographical boundaries as Mountbatten assembles the district and provincial governors in New Delhi to discuss how things should be moved ahead.

Hindu leader Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), Muslim Jinnah (Denzil Smith) and neutral Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) bicker about where the borders should be situated and whether an east and a west Pakistan should be marked out.

It must be emphasised Gandhi’s not at all keen about the concept of partition.

And the question about what sort of a homeland or specialist state should the turbaned Sikhs inhabit is barely touched on.

There’s a nice touch when the revered Gandhi offers Viscount and Lady Mountbatten some of his goat’s curd. The three of them are sitting in an outside pergola and naturally Dickie Mountbatten calls for fresh spoons for the tasting.

Meanwhile, there’s a love story developing right inside Viceroy House between – you guessed it – a Hindu footman and a Muslim serving girl.

Aalia (Huma Qureshi) has a blind father for whom she’s the sole carer. Jeet (Marish Dayal) is one of the Viceroy’s Hindu valets.

Aalia’s fiancée has been on military service and only recently de-mobbed. He doesn’t arrive back in New Delhi until the star-crossed lovers are well and truly down the forbidden romance track.

Fortunately on the work front Lady Edwina Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson) is a far more socially conscious and left-leaning aristocrat than the other stiff upper lip Brits.

She deliberately arranges for more women to take senior positions within the household hierarchy.

As the six-month period leading to Partition expires Mountbatten is blindsided by the devious Pug. He reveals a secret document drawn up by wartime British PM Churchill which throws a whole new dimension into the works for the Viceroy and lawyer Radcliffe.

And how will Aalia and Jeet cope with the boundaries now resolutely drawn between the two religions and the new nations.

Interestingly the family of director Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) was caught up in the tragic events of 1947-48.

This was all revealed as the end credits rolled. Courtesy of renowned reviewer David Stratton, I’ve learnt never to leave a cinema until all those lines and images have rolled past.

The film served a double purpose for me. I’m a sucker for anything to do with history re-tracing and re-enactment and costume drama (okay, the Brits’ Viceroy medals and regalia and the Indian military finery is fairly recent, dating back just to the late Forties).

That’s why I love the Poldark series on ABC-TV and the tales of the Renaissance-era Medicis on SBS. They also serve up the double: history and costumes.

 

 

 

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