By Subhash K. Jha
Film: “Partition: 1947”; Director: Gurinder Chadha; Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi and Om Puri; Rating: ****1/2
At the end of Gurinder Chadha’s breathtakingly beautiful parable on political propensity, we are told that the director’s grandmother was one of thousands of victims of the savagery that followed the Partition of India into two sloppy badly-cut halves.
Thankfully, “Partition: 1947” (“Viceroy’s House” in English) is neither sloppy, nor badly cut. Far from it. There is a delicacy and exquisiteness to the storytelling missing in Gurinder Chadha’s recent works, especially the hideous “It’s A Wonderful Afterlife”.
And yes, this tale of history’s anomalies is also whodunit. Winston Churchill did it. He was responsible for the Partition of India.
There, I said it. Gurinder Chadha agrees.
There is a wonderful after-glow to this tale that lingers long after it is over. Hugely verbose and yet not the least weighed down by the constant exchange of political rhetorics, this is a film that revels in the its tender moments as much as in its power subcontinental message on what happens to a nation whenA it is divided by the supposedly enlightened Colonists called in to save humanity from damnation.
The elegantly-crafted saga unfolds on two levels of political intrigue. On one level, we have Lord Mountbatten (the judiciously cast Hugh Bonneville) and his sagacious wife Lady Edwina (Gillian Anderson) arriving in India to sort out the mess that the Britishers have created over 300 years. On the other native level, a fantasty-fuelled romance unfolds between a Hindu orderly Jeet (Manish Dayal) and a Muslim girl Alia (Huma Qureshi) working for the Mountbattens. They have a history. So does the film.
While the map-changing politics of the Mountbattens conveys a certain strength and power of its own, it is the Alia-Jeet love story that had me gripped. The idea of love during times of ravage and war is very David Leanish. That Chadha manages to pull it off is entirely due to her closeness to the trauma that defined India’s division into two messy halves. Yet, Chadha is able to pull back from the trauma and give itA a hue of dispassionate humour and warmth. And yes, also a feeling of political correctness.
The film is superbly shot by cinematographer Ben Smithard whose lenses explore the wide vistas not for impressive visuals, but to seek out the human face of a political tragedy so immense that it continues to resonate on the politics of the two countries.
One of the many pleasures of watching Gurinder Chadha’s Partition tale — easily her best work since the career-defining “Bend It Like Beckham” — is to take in the talented cast’s character-assuming expertise. Hugh Bonneville lacks the magnetic charm of the real Mountbatten. But he more than makes up for it with his understanding of the anguished dilemma that Mountbatten went through.
But it’s Gillian Anderson’s Edwina Mountbatten who in many ways, holds the plot together. As played by this accomplished actress. Edwina comes across as compassionate, caring and politically well-informed.
In brief, the perfect Lady Mountbatten.
Can’t express the same level of satisfaction watching the actors playing distinguished political leaders. Specially disappointing is the usually-brilliant Neeraj Kabi’s hammy Mahatma Gandhi. Every time he opened his mouth, I squirmed. Made me miss Darshan Jariwala’s Gandhi in Feroz Abbas Khan’s film. Darshan by the way, has a minuscule role in this film suffused with characters who walk in and out of a crisis that not even God could resolve.
Om Puri in a relatively minor role is, his usual impressive self (God, how we miss him!). But among the Indian actors, it is Manish Dayal and Huma Qureshi who stand out with their supple interpretation of love over the religious divide. This is Huma’s best performance to date.
Chadha is specially skilled at putting forward the sudden flare-ups of temper among Mountbatten’s staff. Specially shocking is Muslim staff member spitting on and hitting his elderly White senior. Chadha sees the tragic waste of the Partition in such incidents. She waltzes over the welters of history’s lessons, creating a fabulous pastiche of pain and passion without tripping over into either emotional condition.
This is a history lesson well served and waiting to be seen.
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