A new film about the partition of Pakistan and India has caused a stir in film and literary circles.
Titled Viceroy's House, this historical drama by British-Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha tells the story of Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Boneville) overseeing the 1947 end of three centuries of colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent.
In an interview with AFP, Chadha said she made the film to challenge conventional wisdom about the partition: “There was a far bigger game at play which was the geopolitics of the time, which are not too dissimilar to the geopolitics playing today in that part of the world... The film shows a series of blunders that led to the disaster as well as careful political manoeuvring for bigger interests in the back.”
However, in a review in The Guardian gone quite viral, writer Fatima Bhutto has skewered the film for painting Partition like a gift of the British. She writes that the British are portrayed as benefactors of the Indians and as having no role or responsibility in the sectarian strife marring the subcontinent at the time. She adds that the film belittles Indian leaders like Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah. Moreover, Bhutto criticises the film for its misrepresentation of Muslims. According to her, Muslims are shown as violent, riotous bunch who solely demanded the division of India. The messy, bloody Partition is therefore all their fault.
Bhutto concludes, "Viceroy’s House is the film of a deeply colonised imagination... As a south Asian I watched this film in a dark cinema hall and wept. This August will mark the 70th anniversary of the largest migration in human history. Fifteen million Indians were displaced and more than a million killed as the subcontinent was torn asunder. What value was freedom if it did not empower people to think without chains? If this servile pantomime of partition is the only story that can be told of our past, then it is a sorry testament to how intensely empire continues to run in the minds of some today."
Chadha wrote a counter-piece to Bhutto's review, refuting several of Bhutto's claims by providing a dialogue or plot point as evidence of each. She insists her film doesn't ignore but celebrates the freedom struggle; similarly, it challenges the British divide-and-rule policy. And she vehemently opposes Bhutto's argument that the film paints Muslim as sole perpetrators of violence.
She writes, "In making the film, I took infinite care to show that responsibility for the violence lay on all sides, and all communities were victims of the violence, irrespective of race or religion. Part of that process was to share the script and the film with many Muslim, Hindu and Sikh academics and historians to ensure that the scenes I depicted were a fair and reasonable representation of events."
What does the audience make of Viceroy's House?
For some, the film is fair and "balanced".
This casual film reviewer agreed that "director Gurinder Chadha is careful not to be judgmental or apportion blame for the decisions made."
However, not everyone shares that view.
For some, the glossing over of the British role in the mismanaged Partition is painfully obvious.
Some also say the film's treatment does not do justice to its grave subject matter.