The world’s largest refugee exodus and ethnic cleansing has been making headlines as Rohingya Muslims flee Burma. Gurinder Chadha’s latest offering puts into perspective how the sub-continent has been plagued by these issues, whether of their own making or guided by other powers.
The Viceroy’s House, tells the story of the last months under British Raj, presided over by Dickie Mountbatten as he strives to bring a seething India under control and ensure a smooth transition of power. It is based on a true story and as the granddaughter of a refugee, Chadha is at her evocative best.
There are two story lines in the movie; the Mountbattens’ increasingly futile attempt at preventing genocide and the love story between a Hindu man and Muslim woman. Simmering beneath the surface is the ‘upstairs/downstairs’ tension, which Chadha uses to show how the debates over partition are as intense in official chambers as they are in the staff quarters. How once friendly neighbours are pitchforked against each other. How people, once united for a cause, are now divided against communal lines.
The British had long decided partition was mandatory in their hopes of keeping the pipeline to Middle East open through Pakistan. The idea of divide and rule is not new to the British and they honed it across their colonies. British policies gave rise to differences between Indian communities that had lived together in harmony for centuries; under Islamic rule, under Hindu rule, under various principalities.
Jinnah, always painted as the villain who insisted on dividing India, rightfully claims the winner was Britain. The subcontinent was a mere puppet. A cash strapped Britain could no longer afford India but needed access to key resources so they played their cards. Shashi Tharoor, in his latest book, also points out how the British milked India without ever acknowledging India’s role in bolstering the Empire.
The British knew India could be a formidable power. They realized Nehru and his socialist leaning towards Russia would have been disastrous for them. Chadha uses the example of the American ambassador and his wooing of Nehru as a case in point. If the movie is to be believed, the “Mountbatten Plan’ and “Radcliffe line” had been drawn up two years before 1947. Mountbatten had been kept in the dark.
It may appear Chadha has taken poetic licence to paint the Mountbattens as being more empathetic than they were but they were known Indophiles and remained so till the end of their days. She glossed over the romance between Nehru and Edwina though that was not the point of the story.
A recent movie that loses focus of its point is Kangana Ranaut’s, Simran. The promo song was bold and risqué. It made me believe the topic will be about female empowerment and taking a stance. Kangana has picked some pretty bold themes and is a good actress so I went to the movie filled with expectations, only to be deflated. The movie starts off well and I settled into my seat, preparing for a statement. But the plot is derailed and the movie disintegrates.
Since it’s not my intention to be a spoiler for those brave few who will risk the movie, suffice to say, the premise is totally implausible. Everyone in the movie is confused. The solution to generating cash is bizarre to say the least. Set in an America reeling from terror attacks, the ease with which heists are conducted is unrealistic. The writer should have stuck to the original story of a hard working girl trying to buy her own place to escape her stifling home environment.
There are some important lessons to be learnt in the movie but in the hilarity of the ridiculous story, all the profound moments fall to the wayside. Tucked in between the nonsense are lessons about using condoms during sex, about the hazards of gambling, about setting standards, about the need for family communication, about morality and sexuality, about good and bad.
Unfortunately, the promo song is not even shown; not in the movie, not during the credits. People are reeled in on a false pretext. The only silver lining is Kangana herself. She is an effortless actress and her bindaas style is endearing. But somewhere along the line, she is succumbing to the lure of filthy lucre, dismissing the importance of story lines. Rangoon comes to mind. What a fall for the Queen.
Another self-anointed Queen of the people’s heart, Aung San Suu Kyi is taking a beating in her popularity ranking. Her inconclusive comments have not been received well internationally. India has also come in for some flak because of a decision to deport Rohingyas already taking shelter there. Apparently this crisis increases India’s terror exposure.
It’s unfortunate, despite examples of ethnic cleansing around the world, this current crisis is mired in politics and uncertainty. The sub-continent needs to take a stand and do its best to help the refugees using every channel possible. It’s the humane thing to do. Instead of watching a movie a few decades on and weeping.