Partition: 1947 - Gurinder Chadha's film is a pointless exercise where Lord Mountbatten is made the hero
Gurinder Chadha’s film Partition: 1947 (or Viceroy’s House) is politically quite close to Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) in as much as it views Partition from a liberal British perspective, frowning at colonialism and its doings, but exonerating the last viceroy Mountbatten from the horrors of 1947, when close to a million people died in inter-religious violence.
To most Indians, Partition has only one meaning, but there were three sides which have since created their own versions of the ‘truth’ — the Indian, the Pakistani and the British sides. The meaning of the past is not fixed as one might imagine, but changes based on the exigencies of the moment; different communities — since they have different cultural needs — also produce contrary interpretations of the ‘same past’ at any given juncture, and insist that their's is the correct one.
To begin with a view of Partition shared by most Indians, it would seem from films as different as Chandraprakah Dwivedi’s Pinjar (2003), Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) and Govind Nihalani’s telefilm Tamas (1988) that Partition violence resulted from religious madness, ruthlessly exploited by political forces. There have been a number of Indian texts in cinema and literature devoted to Partition, and the general discourse pertains to ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as instantiated by the violent events culminating in the birth of Pakistan; still, this is only an Indian view. No one can deny that there was horrific violence associated with Partition, but to Pakistanis the event means something quite different.
There has apparently been only one film about Partition coming from Pakistan, called Kartar Singh (1959) directed by Saifuddin Saif. That film is about a Sikh miscreant at the time of Partition who has a change of heart but is killed tragically when he is escorting a Muslim victim of violence across the border. According to Pakistani writers and critics, the film proposes that Hindus and Muslims could have attained freedom separately without tearing each other apart if the political leadership of the three sides – the British, the Congress and the Muslim League – had a better perception of the basic reality as it existed for most people in the sub-continent. What this implies is that while the bloodshed might or should have been avoided, Partition was nonetheless inevitable to Pakistan. While Partition was a terrible mistake to most Indians, to Pakistan, it was a necessity which might have been achieved more peaceably. India is a secular country which (notionally, at least) is equidistant from all religions and the discourse in Partition films and literature, which only regrets the violence, can be associated with the secular view, seeing religious intolerance as the root cause of the 1947 brutality. The most celebrated writer on Partition, Saadat Hasan Manto, migrated to Pakistan but he is more loved in India, because his writing focuses on the violence of Partition as senseless, and not as the birth pangs of a new nation.
A third viewpoint on Partition is that of the British who are primarily concerned with giving themselves a clean chit, even while expressing deep regret for the violence. The British were in charge of state affairs at the time of Independence, and there is little to suggest that the violence was unavoidable. Mountbatten brought forward Partition from June 1948 to August 1947, although his own advisers were against it and there is a case for making him 1947’s villain. He also kept silent to Jinnah about Gandhi’s proposal that Jinnah should head the Indian government instead of insisting on a separate Pakistan. Even in WWII, Mountbatten’ record was spoilt by his failures – like his inept handling of the Dieppe Raid of 1942 in which Canadian casualties were so large that Mountbatten became a hated figure in Canada. Mountbatten’s record was hardly without blemish and it may be surmised that he did not handle Partition ably; it therefore seems unfair that the blame for Partition violence should be shouldered by Hindus and Muslims – without the British duly apportioned their share. To draw a parallel, when communal riots break out, does not the government in power shoulder the blame? Can the Partition riots be blandly attributed to ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, to the ‘public’ involved in them and to their intolerance of each other’s religions? Yet, this is what British films do; in Attenborough’s Gandhi, one recalls, the riots commence instinctively when a column of refugees heading from west to east (Hindus/Sikhs) meets another column heading from east to west (Muslims), and a man from one column flings a stone at the other. ‘Spontaneous combustion’ is the name given to Partition violence in most British accounts.
Lord Mountbatten remained behind in India as Governor-General even after 1947 because of Nehru’s friendship with him (and Lady Edwina); this may also explain why Nehruvian historians are kind to him. Gurinder Chadha follows this trend when Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten are virtually made the heroes of Viceroy’s House. The film is shot on a relatively small budget and Chadha gets her effects by focusing mainly on the happenings in the Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapathi Bhavan) around the time of Independence, with grainy ‘newsreel footage’ effectively blended with the fictional parts in colour. Among the characters, apart from Lord and Lady Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson) and their daughter Pamela, there are Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal), Mountbatten’s manservant and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), Lady Pamela Mountbatten’s assistant. Jeet loves Aalia from before, but Aalia is engaged to Asif, MA Jinnah’s driver. Chadha’s strategy in telling her story is to deal with the Indian leaders and the British at one level and the servants at another, so that the big developments/decisions are witnessed by the smallest participants. The ploy may have been inspired by James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993) which gives us a butler’s viewpoint of history. This is what is intended but the confusion in the way Chadha handles scenes leaves one unconvinced that the high and the low are not actually equals. When Jeet is angry with the British for agreeing to Partition, for instance, he flings the Viceroy’s decorations around in the latter’s presence. In another scene, a guard slaps an English official without being punished. The sense to be got from this of the British is that they were so powerless that Partition violence is impossible to suppress.
Treating the household employees in the Viceroy’s house as a microcosm of the Indian public is an incredibly naïve strategy on the director’s part. As may be expected the Muslims (all except Aalia and her father played by Om Puri) opt unhesitatingly for Pakistan while all the Hindus and Sikhs want an undivided India. At the centre stand Jeet and Aalia who defy all odds when they come together in secular India. The British were ruthless as rulers but we are expected to believe that the Viceroy could not control his own household — and his helplessness here becomes a metaphor for Britain’s helplessness during Partition.
Viceroy’s House seems like a pointless exercise as I have described it but it still packs a bit of a punch at the end when the creation of Pakistan is revealed to be actually part of Winston Churchill’s machinations – as a way of neutralizing Nehru’s perceived affinity to the USSR. Gurinder Chadha, I believe, relies here on the book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition (2006) by Narendra Singh Sarila, which claims to be based on secret documents discovered in the British Library. But the point here is that Mountbatten is still shown unaware of this conspiracy and the blame for it is entirely placed at the doorstep of Winston Churchill, who seems to have fallen into disfavour with the British, something also revealed in Dunkirk and The Imitation Game. But since it was not Partition but its violence which was condemnable, an issue is whether Lord Mountbatten was still not culpable for its worst aspect — the colonial state’s failure to contain Hindu-Muslim violence.
Lastly, Viceroy’s House, like Attenborough’s Gandhi, does not show the sub-continent’s leaders in a good light although this has less to do with the way it understands them than with the actors it chooses to play people like Jinnah, Nehru and Patel. Neeraj Kabi as Gandhi is not Ben Kingsley but neither is he a total washout, but the same cannot be said of the other actors in the roles of India’s leaders. Even a junior politician of today exudes more authority in real life than Nehru and Patel do in the film and one even wonders how Sardar Patel (Yusuf Khurram) ever managed to get the princes to accede to India. Patel, Nehru and Jinnah are much more important to history than people like the Mountbattens, who were lucky to be well-born. The film comes down heavily on Winston Churchill but it unwittingly echoes him by casting actors of low stature in the roles of India’s leaders. Churchill thought India’s leaders ‘men of straw’ and Gurinder Chadha — given that even Mountbatten’s manservant in Viceroy’s House has more gravity than the future political leaders of the sub-continent — seems to concur.
MK Raghavendra is a Swarna Kamal winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016).