Director’s Cut

The cinematic myth-making of Louis Mountbatten

Historians are divided about Mountbatten’s precise role in the planning of Partition, but many suggest that his unrealistic deadlines for British withdrawal led to chaos. UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE / UIG / GETTY IMAGES
Historians are divided about Mountbatten’s precise role in the planning of Partition, but many suggest that his unrealistic deadlines for British withdrawal led to chaos. UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE / UIG / GETTY IMAGES
01 November, 2017

I DIDN’T WANT TO VILIFY ANYONE,” the British-Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha declared in an interview in March about her historical film Viceroy’s House. Released in India on 18 August as Partition: 1947, the film is a dramatisation of Louis Mountbatten’s time as the last British viceroy in India, when he oversaw Independence and Partition. The Hindi theatrical trailer promised that it would reveal “hidden facts” about Partition—that the British government pre-planned India’s new borders, in cahoots with the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and concealed them from Mountbatten. That this version of the events of 1947 surfaces only in a widely contested book by Narendra Singh Sarila—a civil servant and former member of Mountbatten’s staff—appears not to have bothered Chadha, who said her film was not intended for “experts” on Partition, but for those who know nothing about the subject.

Two searing critiques published on The Guardian after the film’s international release in March revealed that Chadha’s take on Partition was not as cautious as she suggested. The first of these was by the Pakistani-British writer Fatima Bhutto. Describing the film as a “servile pantomime,” she condemned its elision of the Indian freedom struggle, its patronising caricatures of Indian leaders, and its misleading portrayals of Mountbatten as a magnanimous viceroy and of Jinnah as the bloodthirsty architect of Partition. The second critique, by the British journalist Ian Jack, did not agree with another of Bhutto’s charges, that the film had been particularly unjust in its portrayal of Muslims, but took issue with one of the film’s implications—that Winston Churchill, and not Mountbatten, was the mastermind behind the division of India. To Jack, Chadha’s “fake history” was as ludicrous as blaming Mussolini for, and absolving Hitler of, the millions of deaths of the Holocaust.

Chadha’s rebuttal to Bhutto’s review, also published by The Guardian, opened with a platitude. “Everyone sees history through their own lens; some only see what they want to see,” she observed. She added that her film had been deliberately misconstrued as an attack on Muslims, when, in fact, she had intended to portray all parties involved as guilty. She did not address, though, why her film shows Mountbatten—played by the English actor Hugh Bonneville—as a heroic figure, a man who a character in the film describes as having the ability to “charm a vulture off a corpse,” and also as a victim, a pawn in Churchill’s game. The film also takes liberties in its portrayal of Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina. By most accounts a fiercely independent person, whose close friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru sparked a scandal, in Chadha’s hands she is watered down to a sympathetic figure, compassionate to her staff and anxious about the communal riots tearing India apart.

The Mountbattens are not the only recipients of Chadha’s benevolence. With the film’s opening sequence—shots of Mountbatten’s uniformed staff, followed by a slow pan across exquisite imperial architecture and along framed photographs of all the former viceroys—Chadha already has us ensconced in nostalgia for the British Raj. The presence of a large number of Indians in the film, most of them in Mountbatten’s employ, does not provide the impression that the film is about them. Only a few are named, and most of those are relevant to a sub-plot—a romance between a Hindu and a Muslim on Mountbatten’s staff. Chadha has said she intended to imitate the format of the BBC drama series Upstairs, Downstairs, which switches between the lives of British aristocrats in a town house and their servants living downstairs. Her film does cut between Mountbatten and his wife in Viceroy’s House in Delhi and his chefs and bellhops, but largely excludes from the purview of “downstairs” the millions who lost their homes, and often lives, to Partition. In one scene, Indian employees manhandle and spit at a British housekeeper, who comes across as a victim of unjustified bullying by the brutish natives. Throughout the film, Mountbatten, who is once pictured poring over reports about violence in Punjab at three in the morning, is absorbed in placating his employers in London as well as the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League, India’s main political rivals at the time. That is, until Mountbatten discovers that the British government, while headed by Churchill, had promised a separate nation to Jinnah.

A still from the shooting of Nice and Friendly, taken in Hollywood in 1922. From the left, Charlie Chaplin, Edwina Mountbatten and Louis Mountbatten, standing with Lieutenant Neilson and Eulalia Neilson, who also appeared in the film. Mountbatten shared a lifelong friendship with Chaplin and others in the film industry. HARTLEY LIBRARY / UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHAMPTON

These small modifications of history serve twin purposes. First, they misrepresent British involvement in Partition, purporting to reveal “hidden facts” about what is, in reality, a topic that has been hotly debated over the last 70 years. Second, they cement an impression of Mountbatten as a man who acted with selflessness and heroism in the face of a Herculean task—arbitrating between various warring religious communities.

In doing so, Chadha’s film, perhaps inadvertently, resumes a myth-making project that Mountbatten himself began. Numerous scholars have pointed to Mountbatten’s propensity for managing the public perception of his actions and the legacy of the Raj. The historian Ramachandra Guha has called Mountbatten “a pioneer in what we now call ‘spin’ and ‘image management,’” and quoted the journalist Pothan Joseph as stating that Mountbatten acted as his “own Public Relations Officer.” Even Chadha has admitted in interviews that the viceroy was “quite a vain chap.” Fortunately for Mountbatten, manipulation of images had become a great deal easier in his time with the arrival of film, and he built up a good deal of clout in the worlds of cinema, television and news—so much so that, at one time, his BBC broadcasts were viewed by ten million people, and rated second only to television appearances by the British queen. Mountbatten enjoyed cinema, and argued with India’s penultimate viceroy, Lord Wavell, about its superiority over literature. He contributed to propaganda films, documentaries and feature films throughout his career, in India and beyond. But his manipulation of images during his time as the viceroy was among his most intrusive and successful interventions in the cinematic form, and created lasting distortions of the history of the subcontinent, the British Empire and of Mountbatten himself.

IN 1922, WHILE ON a six-month-long honeymoon, Mountbatten and Edwina went to Hollywood and acted as a pair of lovers in Nice and Friendly, a short film directed by the English comic actor Charlie Chaplin. This experiment cemented what would become Mountbatten’s lifelong friendship with Chaplin—Mountbatten later badgered Harold Wilson, the British prime minister, to give Chaplin a knighthood—as well as his enthusiasm for films and filmmaking.

At the time of the Hollywood trip, Mountbatten held a low rank as an officer cadet in the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, and earned a fraction of his heiress wife’s lofty inheritance. But he was embarking on an illustrious career—he eventually secured the highest rank in the Royal Navy, of First Sea Lord. His formidable royal lineage—Queen Victoria was his maternal great-grandmother—gave him direct access to Buckingham Palace. He accompanied his cousin Edward, the Prince of Wales, on several trips around the world, including one to India in 1921. (Edward later mused that “Dickie,” as Mountbatten was affectionately known, was far more enthused by polo than by India’s political problems at the time.)

During the Second World War, Mountbatten persuaded the English directors David Lean and Noel Coward—the latter was a long-time friend of his—into making a propaganda war film. In Which We Serve (1942) had a protagonist heavily based on Mountbatten, and chronicled the fate of the HMS Kelly, a submarine ship commanded by him. Key details, such as Mountbatten’s royal heritage and the fact that his ship was eventually sunk, were removed. Mountbatten worked diligently on the film, organising trips for its producers and directors, casting and training the actors, viewing rushes regularly for four months and holding regular screenings for his fleet—an astounding level of involvement, given that he was also the Chief of Combined Operations for the war at this point. The film was a huge success, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and becoming the second-most-watched film in Britain that year. It also provided the Royal Navy with a hero, one that Mountbatten had, all along, worked to ensure would be him.

Two years later, Mountbatten appeared in Burma Victory (1945), a documentary by the English filmmaker Roy Boulting. The film dealt with Mountbatten’s time as a commander in Burma, and projected the now-familiar image of him as a heroic leader. It was an image that at least some in the navy might not have agreed with. In a book on the British military presence in Burma, the British historian Frank McLynn describes an admiral’s acerbic dismissal of Mountbatten’s “egomania”: “The Supreme Commander and his staff ... doing film-star work made me physically sick.”

Still, Mountbatten by then had been singled out as an influential personality. According to one of Mountbatten’s biographers, even Wavell, when informed that the British government was replacing him with Mountbatten, conceded this fact. Mountbatten, who arrived in India in March 1947 with instructions to supervise the British withdrawal, wanted it to stay this way. As Partition approached, he felt it was imperative to control the production of newsreels, which, if they captured the true violence of the event, could become an unwanted visual legacy of the last viceroy.

Newsreels became especially popular in India in the 1930s. A handful of American-owned, Eurocentric production companies—such as British Paramount News, a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures, and Twentieth Century Fox’s British Movietone News—were producing these in the colony, although they only had a handful of stringers. India News Parade, a weekly newsreel focussed on Indian issues, was set up in 1943—the same year that the British government passed the Defence of India Act, making it compulsory for government-approved newsreels to be played in cinemas. These functioned as a propaganda tool for the British war effort, and, according to the film scholar BD Garga, also presented the British Empire in a positive light. Mountbatten noted the importance of them, and made it a habit to have them screened in Viceroy’s House. A few scenes in Chadha’s film—which uses both original and recreated newsreel footage—depict Mountbatten and his staff watching, in a small private theatre, British Movietone newsreels of riots in Punjab, and of Churchill’s speeches.

Mountbatten became the first and only viceroy to hire a press attaché. He took on a man named Alan Campbell-Johnson to regulate his communications, appointments and publicity activities—and, it would turn out, to oversee newsreels. With three weeks to go to India’s independence, Mountbatten also requested a particular cameraman to cover the handover of power—John Turner of Gaumont-British News. Turner arrived just five days before Independence, and, as the official representative of the Newsreel Association, put in place a rota system. This stipulated the use of just one cameraman at a time to capture newsreel footage, and was previously used during the Second World War to save film stock. Now it allowed Turner to shoot most newsreel material himself, or to delegate the work to select others, superseding the handful of cameramen who worked for British Movietone and British Paramount News. Of all the footage from Partition that has been restored or documented by the Colonial Film project—which compiled material in the possession of the British Film Institute, the Imperial War Museum, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum and the British Universities Film and Video Council—a significant chunk is ascribed to Turner. Another name that occasionally crops up is that of an Indian stringer hired by British Paramount News and British Movietone, Ved Parkash.

Parkash, who started out as lawyer, became a news cameraman in 1939, and worked briefly with India News Parade before joining British Paramount News, in 1945. This March, I visited Parkash’s son Rajiv at his studio, Ved Films, in central Delhi. I browsed through a collection of his father’s documents, not expecting to find anything in particular, and stumbled across a letter from Parkash to his editor, EJH Wright, in London. It mentioned Mountbatten’s announcement of the plan for Partition, on 3 June 1947, and stressed the viceroy’s keen interest to have audio and video footage of his speech adequately synced:

After the speech when Lord Mountbatten came to our room where we had arranged the lights, the record of Lord Mountbatten’s speech was played back. Lord Mountbatten started following the lip movement when the particular passage arrived. ... As for the other leaders the shots were taken without any recording.

Parkash’s correspondence with his editor provides other insights about the level of control that Mountbatten’s office exerted over newsreels too, despite the fact that they were US-funded. It also captures Johnson and Turner’s involvement in supervising newsreel footage. In a letter dated 30 August 1947—two weeks after Independence, when the violence of Partition had begun to intensify—Parkash complained to Wright that he was unable to film in Punjab and the Northwest Frontier Province:

I had been fighting for my rights to cover this story but I was refused all reasonable facilities by the Government of India. Arrival of Turner has made a good deal of difference and the facilities and information which the Viceroy’s House or the Press Information Bureau used to provide us have been stopped. Unless you arrange to write a strong letter to Mr Campbell Johnson and to the Principal Information Officer, I am afraid, it may not be possible to obtain usual facilities from the Government of India.

The “usual facilities” Parkash referred to were security and transport. He goes on to add that information would only be offered to “one press correspondent.” Unsurprisingly, this was Turner. Wright was opposed to Turner’s rota system, and believed that it “kills initiative and incentive on part of the men in the field.”

Another of Parkash’s letters to Wright mentioned that he had gauged—through Nehru’s secretary—that the Indian government was not particularly pleased about Turner’s appointment either. “I can tell you in confidence that Pandit Nehru is strictly against this,” he wrote. “I approached his Secretary, he is my friend and even to persuade him to try and include my name”—in the list of people who would cover Punjab, which was limited to Turner. “I had to pick up a fight with him at the conference. He frankly told me that Nehru was against it and did not like to publicise this story.”

Johnson eventually had to acknowledge Parkash’s complaints, but did so by writing directly to Wright. A letter from Wright to Parkash, dated 18 September 1947, reads:

We also received a cable from Campbell Johnson this morning stating that you had not been near him for at least a month and, therefore, he could not understand your complaint about lack of official cooperation.

Evidently, Johnson was orchestrating from behind the scenes. Four years after Independence, he published a lengthy book titled Mission with Mountbatten, which was deeply reverential towards the Mountbattens. Of the viceroy’s discussion of the plan for Partition with the Congress, the Muslim League and Sikh leaders, he said:

Never was Mountbatten’s genius for informal chairmanship and exposition more signally displayed. ... The atmosphere at the outset was undoubtedly tense, but his opening speech soon brought with it the sweet reasonableness and genuine goodwill underlying his whole sponsorship of the Plan. Not even Mr Jinnah’s formality and stiffness could resist Mountbatten’s will to succeed.

Turner—who continued to be a news cameraman after his work in India—spoke more openly, and with less veneration, about Partition in his 2001 memoir. In an interview given to the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union in 1997, Turner, at the age of 82, acknowledged witnessing “terrible massacres.” He spoke of “people, Sikhs, getting on trains and slaughtering everybody on, all the Hindus or Muslims, whichever side they happened to be on. This went on, I got quite a lot of material there. I don’t even know what happened to it, I never saw any of it. Whether it was suppressed or not, I don’t know.” Eventually, Turner agreed that it had, in all likelihood, been censored.

Parkash, on the other hand, struggled to obtain footage of the situations in Srinagar, Punjab and Lahore. He did manage to shoot some footage of riots in Delhi. It has survived, and is currently part of the British Pathé archive. But the Mountbatten administration’s regulation of cameramen stopped a more comprehensive cinematic account of the brutality of Partition from emerging.

Ved Parkash, an Indian cinematographer, tried to capture footage of violence during Partition, but faced bureaucractic opposition from Mountbatten’s press team. COURTESY RAJIV PARKASH

THE ROLE MOUNTBATTEN, and also Indian leaders, played in negotiating Partition has been deliberated over ever since the British left India. Where the naval historian Richard Hough lionised Mountbatten in his biography Mountbatten: Hero of our Time, another British historian, Alastair Lamb, has accused Mountbatten of conspiring with Nehru. The Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has claimed that Jinnah never wanted Bengal and Punjab to be partitioned. The Indian historian Joya Chatterji has written that Mountbatten set unrealistically short deadlines for the Boundary Commission that plotted India’s new borders, but also that viewing the division of Bengal as an order from the British risks disregarding local groups, such as the Hindu bhadralok, that were extremely persistent in their demands for partition. According to The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia, a collection of essays by the historians Gyanesh Kudaisya and Tai Yong Tan, Mountbatten’s chief of staff, Lord Ismay, had warned him:

There is a serious risk that history will do you a grave injustice unless very early steps are taken to establish the fact that there is no substance in the charge that your decision to transfer power in India as early as 15 August 1947 was responsible for the carnage that took place.

Mountbatten did a sterling job of fortifying his reputation after leaving India. On 20 March 1969, he appeared on “Today,” a morning show on Thames Television, to discuss The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten (1968), a controversial 12-part television documentary being broadcast on ITV at the time, in which Mountbatten narrated the story of his life. Towards the end of the interview, the host, Eamonn Andrews, asked Mountbatten, “What is it you hoped or thought the series would say to people, the message this showing of history would send?” Mountbatten, who had by then answered tough questions about the handover of power and the violence that followed it, replied with considerable elan, “I think the message that I thought would come through was that, on the whole, this era that we have lived through shows that our country was great and that we had something to be proud of in history. And I in my humble way wanted to contribute to an understanding of history. Don’t you feel a little bit better for yourself, after having seen it?” Andrews answered in the affirmative. That Mountbatten believed a documentary on himself could encapsulate the Raj’s 200-year rule in India speaks of his arrogance rather than political know-how.

It is likely that Mountbatten was motivated to participate in the ITV documentary series for reasons other than extolling the British Empire, as he suggested to Andrews. Film held a magnetic attraction for him. The historian Adrian Smith, in a 2006 essay titled “Mountbatten goes to the Movies: Promoting the Heroic Myth Through Cinema,” writes:

Movies offered modernity, mystique, meritocracy and a medium in which the mechanics of production and distribution, as well as the filmmaking itself, appealed to Mountbatten the technocrat, the logistician, and perhaps above all, the networker and wheeler-dealer.

Smith details how, after leaving behind a fractured India, Mountbatten continued to contribute enthusiastically to cinema. He ensured complete Admiralty cooperation for war films such as Sink the Bismarck! (1960), which recounted the Royal Navy’s pursuit and sinking of a Nazi battleship, and The Longest Day (1962), based on the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. Mountbatten was also a regular at film premieres, held private film screenings for the navy, and, in the 1960s, was the president of the Kinematograph Renters’ Society of Great Britain and Ireland, a film-distribution organisation, and the Royal Naval Film Corporation, a company that arranged recreational screenings for officers.

Mountbatten was enthralled by cinema and hosted private screenings for the British navy. ''The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten'' was one of several dramatisations of his life.
Mountbatten was enthralled by cinema and hosted private screenings for the British navy. ''The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten'' was one of several dramatisations of his life.

A large part of Mountbatten’s foray into cinema was facilitated by his son-in-law—a film producer named John Brabourne, who married Mountbatten’s oldest daughter, Patricia, in 1946. Brabourne made his first big mark with Harry Black (1958), a feature film about a professional hunter in India. He later produced Sink the Bismarck! and the immensely popular Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and A Passage to India (1984). He was also instrumental in the rebirth of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, in 1973. Most importantly, he was a stakeholder in Thames TV, on which Mountbatten appeared in 1969. Brabourne used his influence again in 1977 to procure another interview for Mountbatten on the television show “This is Your Life.” These television appearances helped Mountbatten articulate his version of historical events.

One more highly selective representation of Partition came with Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986), a six-part series which covered nearly all of Mountbatten’s time in India. In the first episode of the series, three Hindu-Muslim riots appear, one each at the beginning, middle and end. At one point, an actor playing Nehru refers to the British Raj’s “divide and rule” approach—which included granting Indian provinces and princely states additional powers to prevent the growth of nationalist politics. But his limp, brief explanation does little to build an understanding of the Raj’s role in exacerbating the riots. Nothing is said of how Mountbatten’s impractical timeline for the British withdrawal intensified the chaos, or of how he might have interfered with the barrister Cyril Radcliffe’s etching of the boundaries dividing both Punjab and Bengal.

Another episode begins with Mountbatten, at his retreat in Shimla, telling Edwina: “Surely Indian leaders can take care of things now that power belongs to them.” The very next scene depicts yet another communal riot. At several points, the series deliberately glorifies Mountbatten. In a scene showing his visit to the Northwest Frontier in April 1947, thousands of Muslims shout “Mountbatten zindabad!” The only record of such an incident actually having taken place comes from Campbell-Johnson, Mountbatten’s press attaché, in his book. The scene was also depicted in the 1968 documentary on Mountbatten, and in the 1986 television series, which Campbell-Johnson co-wrote. The script for Lord Mountbatten also improvises freely: it shows the viceroy offering to resign before Vallabhai Patel, the future deputy prime minister—for which historical evidence is scant—and being offered the position of the governor general of Pakistan by Jinnah, which never happened. Yet Lord Mountbatten camouflages its glaring factual mistakes with the use of a fair deal of accurate dates and quotes.

The elision of certain historical details and the amplification of others comes to suggest that British intercession was vital to mitigating India’s political upheaval. As the academic Edward Said argued in an analysis of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the reassurance that colonised countries needed European intervention helped make imperialism acceptable to its perpetrators. Several films on India from the 1980s—an era that witnessed a wave of Raj nostalgia—also omitted much of the British role in Partition. Richard Attenborough’s enormously successful Gandhi (1982) set up Partition as a backdrop to Gandhi’s life, but shied away from commenting on the part the British played in it. Mountbatten’s appearance in the film was fleeting.

Reviews of ''Viceroy’s House'' accused it of caricaturing Indian leaders and inaccurately claiming that Partition was a conspiracy hatched by Churchill.

The Jewel in the Crown (1984), an adaptation of the first of a quartet of novels dramatising the British Empire’s final days in India, blamed the horrors of Partition largely on the divide between Hindus and Muslims—whom, it implied, the British had managed to keep from fighting over the long years of their rule. Indian films such as Ritwik Ghatak’s Megha Dhaka Tara (1960) and Govind Nihalani’s Tamas (1988) did acknowledge the communities that suffered the most as a result of Partition. Even little-known productions such as the American director Ken McMullen’s Partition (1987), a loose adaptation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh,” addressed the role the played British. But many filmmakers, including Chadha, have walked an apologist line.

Towards the end of Viceroy’s House, Edwina Mountbatten addresses the hundred or so workers of the viceregal household, and anticipates a time, decades later, when her descendants would ask what the British did in India. “We must ensure we can be proud of what we say,” she exclaims, somewhat desperately. Campbell-Johnson and others in Mountbatten’s entourage made certain, for years after Partition, that there was a strong case for the benevolence of India’s final viceroy. Even contemporary films evidently have not stopped doing the same. The irony that Chadha’s sycophantic film begins with Churchill’s infamous statement, “History is written by the victors,” has not escaped its irate reviewers. If Viceroy’s House is a salute to the self-made Mountbatten legend, the reference is disquietingly apt.