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Gurinder Chadha's 'Viceroy's House' Is A Problematic 'Downton Abbey'-fication Of The Final Days Of The Raj

Subcontinental eyes will see it differently from Western ones.

07/04/2017 1:47 PM IST | Updated 08/04/2017 10:47 AM IST
Michele Tantussi / Reuters
Actor Manish Dayal (L-R), actress Gillian Anderson, director and screenwriter Gurinder Chadha and actress Huma Qureshi arrive for the screening of the movie 'Viceroy' s House' at the 67th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, February 12, 2017.

A little while back, Fatima Bhutto, scion of the Bhutto clan, wrote an eviscerating review of Viceroy's House, Gurinder Chadha's new movie about the dying days of the British Empire in India. Bhutto took issue, among other things, with Chadha's depiction of the British Viceroy as heroic and benign, arriving nobly in India to hand the country back to its people. Chadha fired back a response in the next day's Guardian, arguing she had to balance Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and British narratives in her work.

A quick look at the trailer shows that it is meant to please the masses. The Western masses. There's the beautiful Muslim woman servant in love with a Hindu retainer. There's Edwina Mountbatten, masterfully played by Gillian Anderson, who falls swiftly for the charms of the Orient. There are sweeping vistas, there are passionate clashes, there is something to please and intoxicate the novice cinema goer. Viceroy's House is what it is. It is the Downton Abbey for the final days of the Raj, and not a serious exposition of the end of the Empire. It will be judged as such.

[T]he Viceroy asks Nehru if he feels ready to take on his responsibilities. "Yes," answers the Indian... "We've been taught by the best." That's the British to you and me.

Bhutto's caustic review, of course, is a subcontinental reaction to Viceroy's House. It is equally clear that Chadha's is a British eye looking at Indian Independence. And this is a woman of Indian origin, whose entire career rests on her ability to portray an Indian side to the British experience. A woman whose family has been impacted by the tumult of the Partition. A quick look at the trailer shows a scene of simpering servility, where the Viceroy asks Nehru, soon to be India's first Prime Minister, if he feels ready to take on his responsibilities. Yes, answers the Indian with schoolboy fervour. We've been taught by the best. That's the British to you and me.

As if the decision to "hand" India to the Indians was entirely voluntary. As if the freedom movement—spearheaded by leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru and Bose—had nothing to do with it. Gandhi's vigour was on the wane in 1947, granted, but his hold on the Indian psyche certainly wasn't. And in as much as India's colonial masters saw fit to exit the subcontinent—worn out by war debts and American demands for sovereignty, that is not the entirety of the story. The Indian navy mutinied in 1946, the army followed in 1947, and the British knew their hold on the country was slipping.

Chadha doesn't so much as mention the ineptitude of the glamorous Viceroy dispatched to effect the handover. He rushed through Independence ten months earlier than scheduled, and in the process, hurried along the division of the lands to be partitioned. So shambolic was the entire affair that the leaders of the new nations weren't informed of their borders until two days before Independence. The citizens of these new nations fared even worse; they didn't know where their lands lay until two days after Independence. Chadha doesn't mention, either, that in their scramble to exit India, the British had left the new administrations woefully unprepared. In just one incendiary example, the multi-religious town of Lahore, newly Pakistani in August 1947, had just 200 soldiers to cope with an incensed population of over 100,000.

Chadha doesn't so much as mention the ineptitude of the glamorous Viceroy dispatched to effect the handover.

Gurinder Chadha doesn't adequately deal with the violence and sheer chaos of the period; 1 million murdered, and 16 million displaced as Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims rushed to safety, and all largely over a three month period following Independence in August 1947. It's the largest exodus in history, and the scale of the tragedy, its speed and its avoidable horrors still cast a shadow over the nations "handed" over to their people. That's the problem with the Downton Abbey view of the world, I suppose. It's an outdated view of Britain's 'special' relationship with India.

Perhaps the fault isn't entirely Chadha's. She is British. Bhutto and I—a Pakistani and an Indian—are from the subcontinent. I've seen this dichotomy before. When an aunt, a successful émigré to America, was told she found her infancy in Delhi trying—she had to lie on the blistering earth as her mother, newly without staff, saw to the family's meals—she turned it into a joke. See, she laughed. I was a diva even back then. Little did she appreciate that her success owes more than a little to the drive her parents—having lost so much—instilled in her.

In contrast, when I told another aunt, one who continued to live in India, that our family had been fortunate in the Partition, she looked at me with horror. But we lost everything, she said. Our lands, our jobs, our money, our gold. I told her of the many others I knew who had lost dozens of family members, of others who still dreamt of the senseless barbarism they had seen—on both sides of the Indo-Pak border—and finally, unwillingly, she agreed with me. There were worse losses in those crazed weeks.

This then, is the difference, between the Viceroy's House's view of Independence and that of a little under 2 billion people in Asia. The discrepancy is not all Chadha's fault. This is not necessarily her being colonised as much as her being British. But there is another side to her—her heritage—that led her parents to the UK. And as we begin, in these years of global political upheaval, to pay heed to the lessons of the past, Chadha, and others with a mixed inheritance, will ignore their patrimony at their peril.

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