Until now, British writer-director Gurinder Chadha has worked on a smaller canvas, creating intimate, personal films (notably Bend It Like Beckham) with memorable but ordinary characters.
Her new film Viceroy’s House marks a significant departure for her. It’s a big, splashy historical epic (complete with huge crowd scenes) shot in India. Set in 1947, it is an account of Partition – the circumstances that led to Indian independence and the creation of modern India and Pakistan. The event was marked by appalling violence and loss of life, as the British finally let go its ‘jewel in the crown’.
Chadha, who wrote the script with Moira Buffini and her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, offers a number of intriguing perspectives on the story. Its main characters are Earl Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy and his wife Edwina, doing their best to navigate a tricky political situation. Hugh Bonneville plays Mountbatten - a casting choice with resonance, as part of the story involves Downton Abbey-style intrigue above and below stairs in the viceroy’s house.
Read our interview with Hugh Bonneville about Viceroy's House
But Chadha doesn’t short-change the political complexities of the story either; other real-life characters, including Nehru, Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (who became Pakistan’s first governor-general) make appearances.
And there’s also a cross-cultural romance – between one of the earl’s Hindu manservants, played by the charismatic Manish Dayal, and a young Muslim woman in Edwina’s retinue (Huma Qureshi). This subplot, while charming, feels a little forced at times; it is made to carry an awful lot of weight.
Still, all these storylines are blended skilfully enough, and the actors do a good job. Gillian Anderson makes a fine Edwina: modern, open-minded and not afraid to express her opinions. Bonneville gets the earl right too – basically he’s a decent sort, though lacking the cunning calculation needed to realise the British government are subtly undermining his efforts.
A major point in favour of Viceroy’s House is the sense of passion that drives it. Chadha, who was born in Kenya but is of Punjabi origin, has personal knowledge of the effects of Partition: both her grandmothers were profoundly affected by Partition, its violence and bloodshed, and the uprooting of millions of people, many of them near starvation.
Her personal response to these events has helped fashion a compelling film, one that moves gracefully between the political and personal. It works on both a large and a small scale, and as a consequence Chadha has given us a story that is simultaneously moving and epic.
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