Viceroy House

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For the British the “special relationship” has always been India. Starting in 1600, under Elisabeth I, the East India Trading Company was granted a charter. Thus assumed an incredibly complex interplay between a very old civilisation and a newer mercantilist one. Britannia ruled the waves, gained economic ascendancy over its Continental competitors and established the most powerful Empire ever seen. If you metaphorically scratch an Englishman, or a Scot for that matter, you will find at almost every level of society someone related to someone who served in India — in trading, in education, in the Army or the Civil Service. (Read “The Jewel in The Crown” by Paul Scott, or see the 1984 TV Series.) India was an aggregation of religions and individual states, some wealthy beyond the imagination and some straight out of Indiana Jones, corrupt, bizarre in practice and poor. The East India Company became so powerful that eventually the British Government stepped in to assume complete control of the country, attempting to unify and rationalise its many different states, races, cultures and primary religions — Hindu, Muslim and Jain. There were also scatterings of Jews, Buddhists and Christians.

After the Mutiny of 1857, there was a continuing effort by liberation groups to throw off Imperial Control, and “Viceroy House” is a cinematic effort to describe the final days of the British Raj. It stars Hugh Bonneville, somewhat portly for the characterization of the lean and hungry looking Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India, and Gillian Anderson playing his wife, the elegant Edwina. Edwina, the daughter of a very powerful and wealthy financier, was a considerable heiress, and had the life and habits of an upper class English woman. She became closely involved with Nehru, a follower of Ghandi’s liberation politics, and sympathetic to India’s independence from Britain. The movie examines personalities with considerable sympathy and some accuracy. Gillian Anderson has a magnificent cut glass English accent and you would never mistake her for Scully of the “X-Files.”

Add into the political mix the Muslim leader (Jinnah, concerned with the position of Muslims in an independent Hindu state and thus pushing for a new Muslim State to be named Pakistan) and the post war financial position of the British (very poor and worn out from WWII), and you have a story that has been told again and again. We are on familiar ground as we go over the creation of two separate states, the speed at which the separation was accomplished and the resulting disaster of moving millions of people from one place to another in the name of Independence. Towns were split down the middle. Families and communities that had always lived side by side were sundered. It is fair to say that it was a human tragedy on many levels and has been playing out ever since. The personal dimension is dramatised in a sub-plot romance between a Hindu man and the young Muslim woman he loves.

Though interesting and well-examined with beautiful uniforms and wonderful evocative rich sets, I only wish they had stuck to the main issue which was the extreme desire of the Indians to find their Independence, the insistence of the Americans that they would not support the continuation of the Empire, for reasons of their own (both idealistic and a perhaps a bit triumphal), and the tensions between the Hindus and Muslims which underlay the separation. The subplot would have made a good movie on its own.

It is fair to say that Ghandi himself never wanted to see a two-state solution. Since its creation as a religious state in 1948, Pakistan and India have continued to war with each other. They are nuclear armed. Bangladesh, which was Eastern Pakistan, is poor and under water most of the time, and Kashmir remains a contested territory. Thus is the aftermath of Imperialism it would seem. Both countries remain as members of the Commonwealth and everyone continues to learn something from each other.

Worth seeing and have a curry afterwards.

Kaaren Hale

 

 

 

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