India turned 70 a few days ago. Over the last seven decades, the country itself has unfolded like a movie, with a few themes – the pall of Partition, communal tension, the insecurity of minorities –deeply embedded in its story. Gurinder Chadha’s latest, Partition: 1947, in that sense, tries to make sense of that story’s prologue: the events leading to the Partition of India. A British citizen of Indian origin (whose ancestral home, in India, became a part of Pakistan as a result of Partition), Chadha is uniquely placed to direct this drama. Her directorial abilities, however, are primarily found wanting, because she sees her characters less like complex individuals in a wounded nation, and more like curios in a museum.
Partition: 1947 opens with Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arriving in India, with his family, to oversee the country’s Partition. Mountbatten’s is a story on the inside. The second story, played on the outside, features two ordinary Indians, Jeet Singh (Manish Dayal), Mountbatten’s new servant, and Alia Noor (Huma Qureshi), Mountbatten’s daughter’s assistant. It’s not surprising that Singh is Hindu, and Noor is Muslim; this dash of obvious symbolism signifies the splintered nation at the time, which quashed the prospect of love across religions. It’s a fact that cannot be contested, but it materialises with such literal force in Partition: 1947 that it fails to make an impact. And that’s the main problem with this film: nearly everything in it is told, retold, explained, and explained some more. Chadha’s film is rife with text and surface, but what’s missing here is subtext and depth, the vacant spaces that allow an audience to ‘own’ a film, to imbue it with their own meanings and interpretation.
Making a drama on Partition – which has already inspired enough films – may look like an exercise in tedium. But, as the film’s first few minutes show, by reversing the perspective, Chadha stands a chance to tell a compelling and significant story. In the film’s first segment, where Mountbatten is coming to terms with the responsibility saddled on him, we see a virtuous and sympathetic figure – a man trapped between nations, not just India and Pakistan, but also India and the British Crown. In Partition: 1947, Mountbatten is a fascinating literary device, an unlikely hero, wanting to do the right thing, placed in a circumstance whose fate has already been sealed.
By fictionalising certain parts of the story – most notably, the relationship between Mountbatten and Singh (whose father died in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre) – Chadha seeks to understand the dynamics between people, without the baggage of their national identities. This approach – seeing a story both from the inside and the outside – should have worked, but Chadha paints several characters and conflicts with broad strokes, keeping us at an arm’s length from the film. Barring Mountbatten, who’s played with winning simplicity by Bonneville, there’s not one character in the film whose minds we enter. Not even those of the film’s romantic leads, Singh and Noor, who seem to be playing types and not people. (Qureshi lends some credence to her role, but Dayal, especially in scenes of emotional heft, looks clearly out of his depth.) Then there are political leaders in Partition: 1947 who seem to have walked into the film from a history textbook. There’s Jawaharlal Nehru (charming and eloquent), Mohammed Ali Jinnah (rude and terse), Mahatma Gandhi (revered and conscientious). There’s nothing about them that we haven’t seen in countless films before. Chadha’s film, in many scenes, comes across as a repetition of repetition, severely diluting its essence.
There’s little original writing in Partition: 1947. As a result, formulaic scenes, and predictable set-ups, whizz past, doing nothing to move us. Partition: 1947 first released in the UK, earlier this year in March (with a different title, Viceroy’s House), and it’s not difficult to imagine it working more for an audience largely unfamiliar with this story. Its dubbed version, however, apart from illuminating the politics of Partition (that too in a heavy-handed fashion), offers little to an Indian audience. A largely familiar story doesn’t by itself make a film less valuable, but its director has to push herself, so that we care about her world. Chadha fails on that front. It’s quite telling that, in a 105-minute drama, only one – just one – scene hits home. And it’s perhaps not surprising that that scene features Om Puri, cast as a blind Muslim man, who wants his daughter (Qureshi) to get married to her childhood friend. In this scene, whose details can’t be discussed because of spoilers, Puri registers the true horrors of Partition and, in response, does nothing extravagant but simply holds the forearm of a young man whose story he’s finally understood.
Partition: 1947 doesn’t lack the bird’s-eye view – the big picture – but it needed someone to understand the minutiae.