In Gurinder Chadha’s (“Bend It Like Beckham”) latest historical drama, the titular “Viceroy’s House” is home to several people: The last Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville, “Downton Abbey”), tasked with overseeing the transition of power from the British Empire to an independent Indian government, and his servants, including Jeet (Manish Dayal, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”), who falls for Aalia (Huma Qureshi, “Jolly LL.B 2”), despite the wider tensions between their respective Hindu and Muslim populations.
“Viceroy’s House,” at a surface level, blames British colonialism for causing Partition. But in many ways, the film itself centers on the British ego and replicates the same power dynamic it intends to critique. Its choice of backdrop — and titular focus — is the Viceroy’s House, which uses its servants used as a sample size to depict all of India’s multiculturalism and race relations. Yet for the first half of the film, the racial tensions across the country are largely absent from the servants’ lives, only cropping up to further Jeet and Aalia’s Romeo and Juliet storyline.
Moreover, Bonneville’s Mountbatten feels like an extension of his character in “Downton Abbey.” The benevolent master role obscures the racialized power dynamic between colonizers and locals. Mountbatten asks about Jeet’s family life, while Lady Edwina (Gillian Anderson, “Robot Overlords”) insists the chefs make Indian food and bonds with Aalia while touring the streets outside the palace. The Viceroy’s family and the servants are portrayed as comrades in arms against Partition.
Even when the film acknowledges Mountbatten’s power (and negligence thereof) to shape the country, it does so with a white savior mentality. The family’s insistence that “we came to give India her freedom, not to tear her apart” has double meanings: On one hand, it injects a modern perspective into a historical character’s mouth, criticizing Mountbatten’s decisions as they occur. Yet on the other hand, it also serves as a buffer preventing full blame, by continuously suggesting he had loving intentions.
Moreover, the film often uses British characters as the voice of reason. Mountbatten sits in meetings with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the All-India Muslim League, and Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress, as they bicker. The film doesn’t explain the complexity of either side’s motives for whether to divide India or not. It is Mountbatten who tells them, “I am chairing this meeting and I demand you respect each other,” and the two leaders seem like they can’t get along. The film takes an anti-Partition stance and promotes a theme of racial unity, but it draws on a strange hierarchy to have the British character communicate this message.
Towards the last third of the film, the walls between the Viceroy’s House and the people crumble. Jeet and Aalia’s well-acted romance depicts Partition’s devastating emotional impact, the servants’ lives finally seem to come from the same world as the news clips the film intersperses throughout.
But though “Viceroy’s House” does, in the end, lay blame on colonialism, it does so on a character not present in the film. Rather, Mountbatten is characterized as an unknowing and unwilling puppet, another victim of the British Empire. Mountbatten says, “I fear there will be no victors here,” a statement meant to illustrate Partition’s devastating effects on a nation. But what he fails to see is that there is a victor. He is part of it.
The film’s ending credits tell Chadha’s family story, of a woman abandoned by a train station who ultimately reunited with her husband in a refugee camp years later. It’s interesting, then, that she chooses to focus her film inside the Viceroy’s House rather than on the lives outside it.
“Viceroy’s House” flip-flops between absolving the West and critiquing it. As a film released in the UK, financed by the BBC and Pathé, a French film production company, and consulted on by Lady Pamela Mountbatten, I sometimes wonder if these are artistic decisions, or that the angle a filmmaker of color must take to get this story produced.