I went to see a film tonight. Viceroy’s House, the latest release from acclaimed director Gurinder Chadha, captures in stunning definition the heart-rending beauty of pre-Partition India even as it wrenches the breath from your lungs as it forces audiences to witness the brutality of the violence before, during, and after the country divided.
Poster from imdb.com, ©Pathé International
What the poster above hints at is driven home forcefully throughout the film: division. What seems like a noble intent at the beginning divides certainty from surety to weary confusion; people stand across from one another, separated by the bonds of individual belief where once unity bloomed. Where there was once tenuous peace, intolerance and mistrust tears it asunder.
There is a device in Hitchcock’s iconic masterpiece Pscyho that resonates firmly within this film: when you are born into a cage you desire freedom, clawing and scratching at bars and chains you know you should not wear but do not know how to break. Yet once it is achieved, and the bars are no longer there, what price did you pay? How many claws did you break, teeth shattered and blood spilled in order to gain something you intrinsically know is right but don’t know what to do with once gained?
What I must not allow to be overshadowed by my somewhat dreer opening to this review is the astonishing beauty of this film. It is not even for the spectacle of the locale, though it provides a jaw-droppingly idyllic establishing shot of a green and seemingly serene environment. There is beauty in the detail of every shot, no take is visually meaningless. The cinematography is stunning, at once capturing the grandeur and majesty of the vast eponymous household, the organic delicacy of the outdoor scenes, and even the intricacy of the details in a twoshot between lovers or rivals. The saturation of colour during a mehndi celebration at the midpoint of the film cries out with the joy and vivacity of life in a moment of nonpolitical respite (and even then is nearly ruined for the sake of a forbidden dance), the tension of the story seeping away for a precious moment in the ebb and flow of the music and singing. It is the precious rarity of these unhindered splashes of unsaturated vibrancy that shows the audience that despite the hardships, there is something worth fighting for even amidst division.
Still from imdb.com, ©Pathé International
I have deliberately refrained from commenting on plot or characterization in this film, though the cast positively dazzles with international talent and the narrative deserves greater attention for its basis in factual events.What I truly, firmly believe, is that I couldn’t do any review of the construction of the beleaguered and manipulated Mountbatten family or their aides justice, nor could I delve into the heartwrenching story of the uneasy path of love in a nation torn in two without making it sound cliched and unfeeling. To attempt to describe the reeling horror of the events of the film, of feuding, of political and religious mortality, is to attempt to explain to a grain of sand the importance of a mountain. It can’t be done with the sincerity it deserves, not from an outsider’s perspective. To understand the nature of this film is to witness it for yourself, because the true power is in the act of seeing and experiencing it for yourself.
Viceroy’s House embodies a dichotomy of great tragedy and glimmers of shining hope. Chadha’s filmmaking shows with astounding patience the atrocities which resulted from British occupation and their subsequent withdrawal. I felt a great depth of shame watching the events of this film unfold, and was fighting back tears as the film reached its conclusion. True horror unfurled itself in the intertextual notes outlining the volume of tragedy incurred during this moment of our history. It might sound hollow, but I wish with every fibre of my being that I will become a better person for acknowledging our part in this, that I find a way in my future to better the world for the people who come after my time. I suppose that’s what makes this film so relevant in today’s muddled society.