Monday, December 11, 2017

DVDebut for VICEROY'S HOUSE, Gurinder Chadha's superb distillation of India/Pakistan's "independence"

History, we are told, is always written by the winners. In that case, the history of the independence from Britain of India (and the concurrently-created country of Pakistan) has none of these. Certainly not India nor Pakistan, though some might suggest that the British Empire itself was the biggest winner here, being able, first via its colonization of India, to vastly increase Britain's wealth at the expense of the conquered, and then, depleted of its superpower status by World War II and unable to hold on to India, by "granting" the sub-continent its independence while starting one of the world's most vicious religion wars, which resulted in thousands dead and thousands more homeless -- while allowing, for awhile at least, Britain to hang on to those ever-necessary oil reserves. Good job!

If the above description would seem to simplify things a bit, when you take the long view, the simplification is not by much. One of the remarkable achievements of VICEROY'S HOUSE, the latest film from Kenya-born, raised-in-London filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (shown at left, of Bhaji on the Beach, Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Predjudice) is how she is able to capture the pomp and ceremony, the history and politics, and the personal lives and motives of a half dozen leading characters and then blend all this together into an intelligent, detailed and often quite moving film.

As deftly written, with an eye to both history and drama, by Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini (with some help from Ms Chadha), the movie posits as its heroes Lord Louis Mountbatten, the final British Viceroy of India (played with his usual class and flair by Hugh Bonneville, above, left), his wife (a reasonable, stern and loving Gillian Anderson, above, right) and their daughter, all of whom are presented as more caring of the Indians than were their predecessors. In each of their ways, these people are shown to genuinely want to do what is best for India. But as history consistently reminds us, what is "best" must take in an amalgam of viewpoints.

In this case, is "best" a division into two separate states made up of the Indian Hindus and a new Pakistan of predominantly Muslims, as Jawaharlal Nehru (Taveer Ghani, above) and Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith, below) both want (depending, of course, on the territory they will be given)? Or is it having India remain an undivided state, as populist leader Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) insists?

The Viceroy and his family have been plunked down in the midst of all this, and whatever they can do or decide is, as always, dependent on the powers-that-be, working their magic (or horror) in the background, unseen but never unfelt. All this plays out beside a Romeo & Juliet kind of love story between a Muslim young woman (Huma Qureshi) and a Hindu young man (Manish Dayal), shown below.

Fortunately this love story is brought to enough life and force that it manages to compete for our interest without detracting from the politics and history involved. Ms Chadha is smart enough not to insist on heroes and villains among the Muslim or Hindus, both of whose viewpoints, needs and demands are shown us with surprising force, brevity and often wit. The more we see and learn, the more awful and intractable the situation seems.

TrustMovies was but six years old when the partition of India took place, so he has only come to understand the situation haltingly and certainly not fully since that time. Yet the results of this partition have continued to plague the world, as these enforced divisions of state -- Korea and Vietnam, to name a couple more -- so often do.

If you are looking for an intelligent, thoughtful and moving example of "history goes to the movies," I don't think you could do much better than Viceroy's House -- the only major vice of which, I feel, is the tacked-on finale that brings our love story to a not very believable end. I suppose Ms Chadha wanted to give her audience its feel-good moment. And indeed it does feel good. But much too convenient and not particularly real.

From IFC Films and running 106 minutes, the film hits DVD tomorrow, Tuesday, December 12 -- for purchase and/or rental. And it's now available for streaming via Netlfix.

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