Partition: 1947 movie review - Gurinder Chadha's film is reminiscent of a superficial Downton Abbey
Gurinder Chadha’s early films, in particular Bhaji on the Beach and Bend It Like Beckham, rank way up there on my list of what were once referred to as “crossover” films. However the same cannot be said of her latest period drama, Viceroy’s House, which is releasing in India in English and dubbed in Hindi as ‘Partition: 1947’.
The film opens with the line: “History is written by the victors.” Soon after we see an army of well groomed, liveried Indians scrubbing, polishing, shuffling around the Viceroy’s House preparing for the arrival of the last British Viceroy to India.
Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) comes to Delhi accompanied by his wife Lady Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and their daughter, who busy themselves tinkering with the dynamics between the upstairs (the British officers) and downstairs (the Indian servants) in the House.
One of the better-executed scenes shows Mountbatten instructing his valets that he wants to be dressed in his official regalia in under two minutes. He sets the timer and the men begin their rehearsal. It takes them 13 minutes!
Mountbatten has meetings with Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith) etc. He gets approval for the partition from British Parliament and returns to put Sir Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow), a man who has never before been to India, in charge of demarcating the new boundary line.
Parallel to Mountbatten’s seemingly hurried handling of the handover to India, and the creation of Pakistan, is a love story between a Hindu valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) and a Muslim assistant Aalia (Huma Qureishi). Fractures also appear between a Hindu chef and his Muslim sous chef, and tempers flare up between a Sikh valet and his Muslim colleague.
The Downton Abbey-like upstairs-downstairs dynamic is explored superficially through the Indian staff, and the impact of Partition demonstrated simplistically by the friction between Hindu and Muslim colleagues and neighbours.
Neeraj Kabi is impactful in his one scene as the defeated Mahatma Gandhi while Tanveer Ghani, who plays Nehru, is terribly weak. Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Louis Mountbatten is interchangeable with this performance as Robert Crawley from Downton Abbey while Gillian Anderson seems to be channelling her inner royal.
The Indian actors struggle with the stilted and theatrical dialogue. The love story between Jeet and Aalia is unconvincing. The script by Chadha, Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini is based partly on Narindra Singh Sarila’s book ‘The Shadow Of The Great Game’, which exposes top secret government files that revealed how dividing India was a British strategy for retaining influence as a post-Colonial power. But this conspiracy theory does not come through in the script.
While one may not doubt Chadha’s passion for telling this story, Partition: 1947 offers no new information to an Indian audience. With years of history crammed into 107 minutes, yet the narrative feels dreary and barely scratches the surface of the deep impact of Partition.