If there’s one subject a British filmmaker needs to approach with caution nowadays its colonialism. I mean, sure, our history, and indeed our present, is full of shit that needs approaching with caution, but following Brexit, the subsequent rise in nationalist sentiment, and the belief among many of our elderly that a rapacious, destructive, grasping British Empire was emblematic of a ‘Great’ Britain, now lost, as artists we need to watch the messages we put out into the world. Frankly, anything that seeks to absolve us of the past atrocities our country inflicted upon the global community is no longer responsible.
If there’s anyone I’d be confident giving the story of the final months of British occupation in India to it would be Gurinder Chadha. A longtime British director whose early work throughout the nineties and early millennium focused heavily on the experiences of women in the British Indian community. She’s talented and accomplished and her work demonstrates an understanding and acceptance of both British and Indian communities that your average white guy British director would have trouble conjuring. I, for example have a lot of love for John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but one cannot deny that the film is drenched in its exoticism. By the way, if you haven’t watched Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham recently, catch it again, it’s painfully 2003 (as anything with Beckham in the title surely is) but Chadha’s irrepressible love and kindness shines right out of the screen.
Right there, though, is where the film’s greatest problem lies. I know it’s an awful thing to say but her approach to the material here is simply too optimistic, too light. By painting a portrait of the twilight years of Britain’s rule we are introduced to a world of good intentions. The Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his family (because yes, in the 1940s the queen’s cousin could be set to rule a whole country by virtue of that lineage) are unquestionably portrayed as noble, good people. They become symbolic of her majesty’s wrongful dominion, and their arrival at the grand manse that is to be their home sweeps aside the almost hundred years of prior subjugation in the mind of the audience.
Alongside the Viceroy and his politicking which makes up one half of the film, we also concern ourselves with the serving staff of the estate. This plot revolves mainly around a love triangle between Jeet (Manish Dayal) a Hindi manservant to the Lord, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) a Muslim maid, engaging in the same sort of star-crossed, ill-fated romance of countless melodramas past. However, by painting it this way, the essential societal critique of such a plot seems misdirected, rather than critiquing the iniquity between British and Indian subjects, we instead focus on the religious divide.
Which sounds like I’m one of those people condemning the notion of ‘identity politics’ in favour of wider class consciousness. Please, that is not my intention, that subplot’s relationship to religion is directly tied to the way the main plot mistreats the division of India and Pakistan. While Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of India, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, first Governor-General of Pakistan, both appear in the film, neither is given the time to elaborate a clear political message regarding the future of their countries, nor the ongoing political and religious conflict that seems to make division inevitable.
By doing this, underserving the voices of India’s political leaders, and establishing this subplot that explicitly undermines the concept of division, the weight of the whole affair falls squarely onto the shoulders of Lord Mountbatten. It gets to feel all white man’s burden-y, casting him as solely responsible for the division and execution of the events unfolding. Which, like, no, that’s not how it goes, and this representation is just inherently diminishing to everyone else involved.
It’s hard to deny the conviction of the film’s ending though, staying in India after the division, paying witness history’s largest mass migration, the final scenes of the film come as a sort of formal destruction of the preceding material, plunging our known characters into this strange unfamiliar environment. The chaos of events becoming a part of the filmmaking as we are suddenly distanced from our leads, forced to comprehend the grander human tragedy at play on the screen.
It’s an audacious move, and the first time that Ben Smithard’s otherwise quite restless cinematography makes total sense. The problem is though that the ideological rot is so deep seated it disrupts the rest of the films able work, Laurence Dorman’s production design and Keith Madden’s costumes are divine, I’m delighted that they actually got to shoot in the Viceroy’s House, but here these details become a textured fetishisation of a grim past, like those people who seem a little too into their Nazi memorabilia.
Alright, that’s an unfair comparison, but you see my hesitation here. It’s an able film, it’s just put to the wrong cause, it’s hardly the filmmakers to blame for the current socio-political climate, nor the way their film interacts with it. But we can’t deny, given the situation, it don’t seem all that great.
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