Director’s Cut

The cinematic myth-making of Louis Mountbatten

01 November 2017
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.

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.

Manik Sharma writes on arts, culture, books and film.

Keywords: cinema British raj Fatima Bhutto Partition Gurinder Chadha Louis Mountbatten