Where to start with Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House? It is a film that is likely to polarize audiences. Fatima Bhutto wrote a dismissive opinion piece for The Guardian on the film’s supposedly deplorable romanticism of the trauma of Partition, to which Chadha has replied. I saw the film a few days ago at a preview screening with Chadha in attendance. I agree with some of Bhutto’s criticisms particularly regarding the way Muslims are repeatedly framed as the aggressors and instigators of communal violence – although Chadha’s juggling act of trying not to demonize any one group would have come in for criticism regardless of the how the film turned out. Furthermore, the depiction of the British Empire is somewhat rose tinted, certainly raising the question of whether or not The Mountbatten’s should have got it in the neck. But are these two points of criticism enough to dismiss Chadha’s film as an extension of imperialist propaganda?
The film opens a wound that has yet to heal and in doing so intervenes in the unfolding discourse and historiography of Partition but from a British Asian diasporic perspective. I would reason this film is not strictly about the horrors of Partition. In fact, it is essentially a bloodless film, something that is likely to not sit well with historians. In the Q&A, Chadha said she made a decision not to depict communal violence because she did not want to make a film about victimization and get caught up in the politics of pain and suffering that often gets contested when dealing with such traumatic historical events. This is understandable given what is at stake. However, it is near impossible to remain impartial when it comes to depicting history particularly Partition and there is a sense that by trying too hard to balance the competing representations Chadha loses some of the nuances and contradictions of characters. Attempting to deal with Partition in a mainstream context while targeting a broader audience than usual explains the film’s lapse into Bollywood melodrama in the final moments and why the administrative act of partitioning unfolds within the structural paradigm of the British upstairs-downstairs melodrama. The resultant humour that comes about through this clash of cultures in the house is unevenly pitched and jars with the politics at stake.
Nonetheless, Chadha’s film is significant for two reasons. Firstly, creating a cultural space opens a new site for dialogue and conversation about Partition, Colonialism and Empire, around which there has been a continual silence. The wounds of Partition inscribe a trauma that has often been ignored in the writing of history. Secondly, advocating a prescient message of tolerance and coexistence, however preachy this maybe, seems critical for any chance of reconciliation and healing to take place for the wounds of Partition. In addition, while there is a tendency to simplify and condense history, the film also synchronically magnifies the political machinations of Partition. For instance, the creation of Pakistan is linked to the consolidation of British power, enacted to counter the Soviet Union, and by bringing oil into the equation feeds into the contemporary geopolitical situation today. If anything, this is a moderate political indictment of the British Empire and the historical engineering of Partition. Admittedly, what is most off putting about Chadha’s view of Partition is the reduction of leaders including Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi to political caricatures.
Many of the films to deal with Partition directly have come from outside the mainstream – both Garam Hawa and Tamas were funded by the state in India yet are two of the best films on the subject. The mainstream especially popular Hindi cinema has continued to remain silent on the subject, largely because the trauma of Partition is still being played out and is either too severe or sensitive to deal with, falling back on allegorical tropes such as the lost and found narrative device. Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak has perhaps come closest to capturing the trauma of Partition in his work but Chadha’s view of Partition and history also points to the complicated ways in which we remember the past, in so much her film could be situated as a film about memory and whether remembering correctly or incorrectly is suggestive of a deeper crisis at work in which the history of Partition and Empire has remained buried and obscured in the recesses of our collective imagination.