History repeating itself

This is my review of Viceroy’s House [DVD] [2017].

In the false calm before the carnage, we see the hundreds of servants in their immaculate “native” uniforms performing the symbolic pageantry of a declining Empire bent on withdrawing from a colony with dignity. I have no idea how faithful this film is to history, but when the world is still riven by fighting between religious factions, this film is a timely reminder of historical bungling from seventy years ago. Yet unlike many humanitarian disasters, it is unclear what actions could have been taken to avoid it.

Hugh Bonneville is well-cast as Lord Mountbatten, the affable, unflappable negotiator brought in to pour oil on the tense meetings between the two adversaries Nehru and Jinnah, the one seeking liberty in the form of a united India, the other set on partition to permit the emergence of Pakistan as a Muslim state.

As British administrators indulge in heated debates as how best to stem the growing tide of unrest, they fail to notice the Indians in attendance hanging on on evey word, to pass on in whispers, only feeding the climate of prejudice and intolerance. The apparently illicit and futile love affair between a young Hindu and his longterm Muslim friend is a perhaps slightly sentimental metaphor for the problem of finding a solution.

In the film, the alleys of Delhi and the poor who throng them are impossibly clean and well-fed, and it must be hard to follow the arguments without prior knowledge of situation, as convincing lookalikes for the Oxbridge-educated Nehru, Jinnar and giggling, barefoot Gandhi make their appearances. Yet this is a visually impressive, well-acted, compelling film reminding us of a tragedy which time has eroded too quickly from memory: the massace of millions during the enforced displacement of 14 million Indians, and the terrible dilemma of having to choose quickly which country to join. There is also the twist at the end when we learn how Mountbatten himself may have been a mere pawn in a cynical exercise.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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