Last days of Imperial India


The Partition of India in 1947 rates as one of the momentous events of the 20th century. The figures alone show the scale: 14 million displaced and one million dead from sectarian violence.

It created two independent nations, India and Pakistan, from an exhausted empire that had just won World War II.

Despite widespread poverty and illiteracy, these nations were on the verge of industrialisation with significant railway networks and other infrastructure.

Politically, they were led by a well-educated middle class and created a “third world” between the communist Soviet Union (and soon China) and the West.

Unfortunately, neither India nor Pakistan fulfilled those early hopes of catching up to the then developed world.

Instead it was the losers of World War II, Japan and Germany, along with post-war Europe and countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, which thrived.

The events of 1947 inspired much literature, including Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but few films, notably Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi. So Viceroy’s House (Transmission) is a welcome addition.

It is also notable because Bend it Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha has personal links back to 1947 through her grandmother (more of which is revealed in the film).

Chadha wisely focuses the story on two levels to avoid the pitfalls of most sprawling historical dramas. The first is the casting of Hugh Bonneville as Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of Imperial India, with Gillian Anderson as his wife Edwina.

Second, their palace is far grander than Downton Abbey and with some 500 servants there’s plenty of room for an upstairs-downstairs romantic subplot.

Then you throw in a mix of three religions (excluding Christianity) with larger-than-real-life characters such as Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah all seeking their place in history.

The actual historical events, including whether Mountbatten was a fall-guy for an already decided map of Partition, are treated accurately as far as they go. So is the melding of reconstructed events with the terrible scenes of destruction and tragedy depicted in newsreels of the time.

You also get hints of why India and Pakistan failed to fulfil their potential in the past 70 years: Jinnah’s hardline approach in the world’s first Islamic nation, initially a reward for his support during the war and as a future bulwark against Soviet expansion; and Nehru’s embrace of socialism and friendship with the Soviet Union.

The romantic subplot, between Hindu servant-soldier (Manish Dayal) and his Muslim sweetheart (Huma Qureshi) — both from soon to-be-partitioned Punjab — is corny, but illustrates the sectarian issues at the human level as well as providing a climax that belongs back in the days of David Lean.

A quote at the start says, “History is written by the victors”, and reflects Chadha’s desire to be evenhanded in placing the blame. The irony is that this is attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, who while ex-Prime Minister at the time is now revealed as the mastermind of Jinnah’s power play and the “divide and rule” strategy.

Rating: Mature audiences. 106 minutes

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Nevil Gibson

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