IndiaGBnews.com special correspondent Aline Dobbie, who grew up in India, reviews Viceroy’s House and finds an essential, poignant film with plenty of lessons for today.
Go and see it; the evocative power and poignancy and ugly truth hits you in the face and by the end one is in tears, tears of relief but also tears of anguish for what happened. The greatest transmigration of humans 14 million people moved and lost nearly everything and at least one million died most cruelly and needlessly. That was Partition and it is well portrayed in Viceroy’s House. I was ambivalent about watching this film. I was a mere babe in the cauldron of politics and expediency that drove the sub-continent to partition. It remains in my view, a child of India, the most shameful action of the British in their three hundred years of empire.
Curiously there are comparisons. Here in the late winter of 1946/47 a cousin of the King is sent out as the Last Viceroy to act with all expediency to give India its freedom. For a start let me say I loathe the patronising word independence and prefer to say India gained Nationhood. The story is well known and there are some periphery plots and twists that make it dramatic and all the more poignant. However, the theory that Churchill had formulated a secret plan to partition India to forestall any venture of the Russians post World War 2 is entirely credible, but was it true? I can believe it of the old man, he was wise though curiously shamefully ambivalent about India because he was sentimental about Empire. But he knew the Russian Bear craved a warm water port. However, an ungrateful nation saw him defeated in 1945 and Clement Atlee was the prime minister. Now he and his Labour Party had promised the worn out courageous, exhausted cold, hungry people of Great Britain that there would be bacon and eggs for breakfast and a new order. Except there wasn’t. Food rationing continued till 1954, a near bankrupt nation was trying to implement the new National Health and cope with post war housing and education and generate progress. Atlee wanted to divest the UK of India as soon as possible. Thus, he tasked Lord Mountbatten to proceed with all possible haste to achieve that end.
Read Freedom at Midnight, Indian Summer, Pamela Mountbatten’s own books and you realise how it was cobbled together very speedily and it was Mountbatten who stood out for certain privileges to make the task easier for him and his family. In the film both Mountbatten and his wife Edwina are seen in a complimentary light whereas the truth was that they were both mercurial, she particularly. Her subsequent great affection for Pandit Nehru was only glanced over in the film. 1947 started with the most horrendous cold winter of all time in Great Britain and King George VI nearly decided to abandon his family visit to southern Africa as he felt guilty leaving the nation in the grip of this icy cold with so little heating and food. But go he did and my husband Graham’s family recall happy princesses riding on a beach near where they lived in East London South Africa. The man who became Leader of the United Party Sir De Villiers Graaf danced with Princess Elizabeth at her 21st Ball in Cape Town. Then she became engaged to Philip Mountbatten and the rest is history.
However, at the same time my late Parents were in Bareilly in the UP as Pa was still a serving colonel and recognised as a hero of the Indian Army for his war exploits. The Commander in Chief visited the Regimental HQ and my Mother hosted him. VCs were handed to brave courageous men who had served in both the West and East theatres of war. My Uncle was DG of Calcutta Police and he had to ‘mind’ Edwina and Nehru on occasion. He heard the latter say to Edwina ‘it does not matter if five million die….’. My Pa with Jim Corbett the great naturalist and hunter went into the hills of Kumaon and talked in fluent Hindi and Urdu to villagers who said ‘Sahibs, we are going to travel free on the trains, Hindustan will be ours, there will be huge amounts of food for our bellies, all is going to be wonderful…’ Except it wasn’t. Politicians and their promises are still creating disappointment and anger to this day all over the world, not least in modern India, Pakistan and the UK?
The handover is hurried, Cyril Radcliffe is sent for and outraged at what he is expected to do… a man who had never set foot in India previously. He foretold what would happen and it did in the most frightful way, mass slaughter, cruel killings, maimings, rape and general chaos. Hindu was set against Muslim whereas they had lived in comparative harmony previously. The man who demanded Partition was Mohammed Ali Jinnah and he was intransigent whereas Mountbatten is seen not to want this at all. Gandhiji foretells its disaster as does Nehru, but conflagration threatens and the decision is taken in London because Atlee has no love for India and just wants to be rid of the huge challenge and financial drain, and Jinnah, he could not care. I am sorry, I am partisan to India. Had Jinnah’s terminal illness been generally known perhaps it would not have happened, but for one man’s aspiration for power a subcontinent nearly went up in flames in the north and the outcome troubles us all to this day and a great many people died needlessly and cruelly and their descendants remember with grief what was lost and the subsequent hardships they endured.
The great house, now Rashtrapathi Bhavan ably demonstrated to the audience by using the very splendid Umaid Bhavan in Jodhpur shows us all the intrigue, vastness, grace and friendship plus scheming that is part of the whole undertaking.
This is a film that young Indians should go and see, and those of us of a certain age can reflect upon. It is poignant and for this daughter of India it made we weep, but I commend it nevertheless. The message is however clear in this 70th anniversary year….please do not allow sectarianism to rise up and once again engulf India. Jai Hind
Follow Aline on Twitter: @AlineDobbie