In a world robbed of gods

Volume 14, Issue 1  | 
Published 03/07/2017

Viceroy’s House (2017)
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Reviewer: Warris Vianni

The gods used to grace us with their presence. Making the treacherous descent to earth and risking taint by association with humans, the gods were well known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. But it was in India, ancient Bharat, where the gods descended with the greatest abandon. Here, they dwelt amongst the humans, frolicking, making love and war, and leaving behind an astonishing store of legends celebrating their doings and recording our shortcomings. But the gods have deserted us of late. They did not appear even in Bharat's hour of need in 1947. Instead, the people of modern Bharat had to make do with a tall white man, his wife, daughter and their dog, who flew in from 4000 miles away in a 4-engined York transporter to help settle their matters. Though not known to be a deity, the white man’s high opinion of himself justified that he should dwell there in a great house, attended by a staff of 2000, there to grapple with the destinies of nations, and the reputation of his own.

British film director Gurinder Chadha - from a Kericho Punjabi family - has bravely produced a lush film narrative about the tumultuous last days leading to British withdrawal from India in the monsoon of 1947 and the partitioning of Bharat into India and Pakistan. The focus of the film is narrowed to the drama unfolding at the great house - Viceroy’s House in Delhi. Here Chadha combines the high politics of the drawing room, presided over by the last Viceroy and his Vicereine, Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, with the raw domestic politics amongst the staff downstairs who help run the House.

Ten years in gestation, Viceroy’s House is very watchable, and a testament to Chadha’s maturing craftsmanship as a film-maker. Shot beautifully in film (rather than digitally), it is rich in colour and shadow, doing justice to the period and the chosen setting (much of it was shot at the Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur). It is accompanied by a lyrical film score composed by A R Rahman, always at the ready to tug at the viewers’ emotions in the unfolding sub-story of the relationship between a Hindu and a Muslim who were childhood friends and who meet again as staff at the House. Jeet (Manish Dayal) is the Viceroy’s valet; Aalia (Huma Qureshi), the Vicereine’s interpreter.

The lovers are just too ridiculously beautiful - and, disconcertingly, they speak to each other in English. The film would have been stronger with the use of sub-titles for some of the parts. The cynical viewer is left annoyed at being moved by a love-story that is commercially intelligible but has the feel of clutching at straws. And yet, one cannot commend Chadha enough for wanting to send a message to her younger audience about the dreadful consequences of a tribal outlook untamed by civic virtue. 

But it is the film’s treatment of the historical record of Partition that is most problematic. Partition is a big subject that has surprisingly attracted comparatively little attention from filmmakers. In Gadar (2001) and Pinjar (2003), Hindi cinema focussed its lens on the subject by exploring the upheaval in personal relations. There is also the more obscure work of Ritwik Ghatak, who produced a melancholic trilogy on the subject in the early 1960’s. More recently, there is Rajkahini, also produced in Bengal (a lively film with a wild-west feel, which centres on the action when the Radcliffe line of partition that cuts India/creates Pakistan runs through a whorehouse in the middle of nowhere). Rajkahini is currently being re-worked in Mumbai as Begum Jaan. One shudders.

Despite the many interesting angles that the subject of Partition offers, and even allowing for the licence that a commercial work permits, Chadha has chosen to tell a shaky story about a British wartime plan to divide India for strategic reasons, a plan put into effect through the cunning of Churchill and Jinnah, and the unwitting agency of Mountbatten. She claims to have unearthed new information at the India Office records in London which seems to have eluded historians pondering for decades over yellowing documents in the archives. Viceroy’s House also places unfortunate reliance on The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila, ADC to Mountbatten. Sarila does not quite prove the theory which he has written a whole book to advance, but is revealing in ways perhaps not intended: by confirming a mind-set in the sub-continent which finds relief in suspicion, and a basic insecurity that feeds on the idea of the white man having potent creative power, always ready with a plan, who knows what he is doing.

Chadha's puzzling depiction of the Viceroy makes one wonder what she made, for example, of Mountbatten’s bracing portrait by the historian Andrew Roberts in his Eminent Churchillians. Or, of the account by the distinguished BBC correspondent John Osman of a lengthy dinner conversation in 1965, in which Mountbatten, reflecting on his tenure, reportedly made the pithy, glorious and dispiriting confession “I fucked up”. Though not an important film, in dealing with an important subject, Viceroy's House raises, once again, questions about the responsibilities of those who traffic in information, in film as in print, towards those who consume their work. It also reminds us how so much of our worldview is fashioned by flows of information we are in no position to interrogate.

The film has a couple of outstanding performances. Gillian Anderson is a fascinating Edwina Mountbatten, with her cut-glass Edwardian accent and impressive in her political and social sophistication. Michael Gambon as ‘Pug’ Ismay is authoritatively Machiavellian. Though Viceroy’s House is not about the endless political negotiations that involved Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah, the film’s audience in the sub-continent will be surprised by the portrayal of figures central to the narrative of Partition, and who still loom large in the political imagination there. They were complex, interesting men - and become ever more compelling with the passage of time as the pygmies dance in their shadows.

Chadha has said that she wanted a smiling Jinnah (Denzil Smith), and while here he is more rounded than Attenborough’s Dracula-like character, Jinnah’s part in the narrative is something of a missed opportunity. Film lends itself to rendering complexity and nuance, and Viceroy’s House could have drawn out the ambiguities and contradictions in the story of Jinnah, the enigma whose role was the fulcrum upon which the drama of Partition played out.

Immensely successful at the Bar in Bombay and London, Jinnah ended up, in effect, as a vakil for the Muslims of India, adopting them as the client offering the greatest challenge. But the average film-goer will come away with little sense of this man’s extraordinary political trajectory. In 1917, the poet Sarojini Naidu sponsored a publication of Jinnah’s speeches in which she repeated the description of this Indian lawyer as ‘the best ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity’. As a member of the Congress party, Jinnah, in the 1920’s, expressed deep distaste at the way Gandhi was saturating political discourse with Hindu imagery; he also accused the Mahatma, as others did, of cynical opportunism in campaigning for the restoration of the Caliphate. There was nothing in the biography of this Gujarati Khoja that disclosed a desire for communal separateness, or the aspiration to an Islamic state. And yet, with the approach of self-rule in 1947, Jinnah’s attitude toward Congress displayed the pathology of a chastened lover driven by bitterness.

Recent revisionist scholarship suggests that Jinnah’s goal was not a separate Muslim state, but to secure recognition for the principle of a nation of Muslims within an independent India, which would enjoy equal rights with the majority through a confederal structure. (There is an interesting parallel here with Ambedkar’s struggle for a separate franchise for the Untouchables.) A seminal moment in the political evolution of the sub-continent was the census of 1871-72, which revealed for the first time that ‘Muslims’ constituted only 25% of the total population (the census also solidified identities when, previously, there had been both fluidity and syncretism). For Jinnah, the experience of Congress government in the provinces under the Government of India Act of 1935 on the road to Independence had been sobering. Congress then had a Muslim membership of 3%. Jinnah, the advocate, interpreted his brief with unwavering determination: how to secure the position of an economically weak minority fearful of a raj under an ascendant class of merchants, landlords and moneylenders. Analytically precise and politically untrusting, Jinnah understood that the vulgar logic of democracy risked consigning the Muslims to a permanent and debilitated minority in a free India. He grasped the political significance of what we in Kenya today call the tyranny of numbers.

His own personal experience suggested to him that, however urbane and whatever his self-identification, in the eyes of the majority, he would always be ‘a Mohammedan’, the term Gandhi had tactlessly used to publicly describe Jinnah in their first encounter on Gandhi’s return from Africa. Aware that he had a weak hand, Jinnah was stubbornly imprecise when called to clarify the nature of a temporal ‘Pakistan’, his majimbo nation. Nehru also remained resolute in his own quandary. Anxious not to give any quarter that could delay independence, he was insistent that any grievances of the Muslims should be dealt with only after the transfer of power. In response to years of self-serving taunts by the British that there was no such thing as an Indian nation, Nehru had become trapped in a defensive mind-set which reflexively denied that there could be a Muslim nation within a territorial India.

Senior figures in the Congress party did understand the source of Jinnah’s concerns, and Gandhi’s words on the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS when he spoke to his party members at Bombay in August 1942 bring the issue into a focus that now has haunting resonance:

“Those Hindus who, like Dr Moonje and Shri Savarkar, believe in the doctrine of the sword may seek to keep the Mussalmans under Hindu domination. I do not represent that section. I represent the Congress… If you distrust the Congress, you may rest assured that there is to be perpetual war between the Hindus and the Mussalmans, and the country will be doomed to continued warfare and bloodshed. If such warfare is to be our lot, I shall not live to witness it.”

Though Jinnah the politician deployed cultural identity - that most modern of torments - to build his constituency, Jinnah the lawyer could only conceive of a highly legalistic response to an essentially political problem about social and economic relations.

The film-maker’s art can imaginatively render such complexity vivid, and Chadha often manages this well by compressing years of debate, negotiations and memoranda into a few short lines - sometimes creating the feel of a short and sharp history lesson. Perhaps Jinnah’s role is always bound to be at a certain disadvantage in terms of storytelling. He might be revered in Pakistan, but anybody who advocates separation generally starts off on a poor footing. And, neither does the story of Pakistan since 1947 go to suggest an alternative narrative of a plucky people who fought and won their freedom.

Viceroy’s House is relieved by Chadha’s Punjabi sense of humour and her enjoyment of English irony. The average Englishwoman, however, would be too embarrassed to make the visually rich film that Chadha has produced and stand accused of celebrating the imperial flummery at Delhi. But the camp carrying-on of the Brits presents no such difficulty for a Punjabi girl. And Indians love a tamasha.

As is nearly always the case with the subject of Partition, the focus is on the Punjab, rather than the relative calm in Bengal. At the end of Viceroy’s House, we watch creatively mixed newsreel from 1947, showing scenes of the terrible suffering resulting from decisions taken in elegant, wood-panelled drawing rooms. It is difficult to decide what is more shocking in the story of Partition: that the two-states solution has left the world with two states maddened by religion and nuclear weapons; or, that nobody was held to account for the death of a million people and the homelessness of fifteen million others. They were, on the whole, the wretched poor, the watu, abandoned, it would seem, by their gods, and their politicians.

The German sociologist Max Weber defined modernity as a condition of the world robbed of gods. But despite our separation from them, our invocation of the gods remains unceasing. It is perhaps because of this need in us that Nehru (in a scene not in the film) found himself on the evening of 14 August 1947 taking part in a ceremony at a private residence on Queen Victoria Road, not far from Viceroy’s House. It was a traditional ceremony to mark the assumption of power by a new ruler. Nehru and his colleagues were seated cross-legged around a fire; the priests, who had arrived from Tanjore, sprinkled holy water on them. Shlokas were chanted and vermillion applied to Nehru's forehead before he departed for the more public proceedings at the Constituent Assembly to mark the transfer of power. There, at the midnight hour determined by the astrologers to be the most auspicious, and to the sound of a conch shell reverberating through the chamber, power passed to India’s new rulers. On the Sunday following, 17 August, Jinnah attended a service of prayer and thanksgiving at the Anglican Cathedral in Karachi, the capital city of his new state, but not yet nation.

© Warris Vianni

Last modified on Wednesday, 12 July 2017 16:38

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