Is the movie “Viceroy’s House” useful history?

Anyone examining the history of nuclear energy checks out India. I won’t discuss this in detail right now but there is no doubt that the nation’s turbulent formation in 1947 reverberates down the decades (for Pakistan as well). Hoping to capture some background feel for that period, this week I saw Gurinder Chadha’s movie Viceroy’s House, which covers Lord Mountbatten’s hurried organization of the British exit from its major colony. The film itself is a modest success – the script flows well, Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson do a good job as Mountbatten and wife Edwina, but the Indian love story (probably necessary and, I understand, personally important to the director) is overly mawkish. In the event I was more interested in the historical aspects.

For my research I read nothing specific about Mountbatten, but did absorb Ramachandra Guha’s evocative account of partition in his masterful history India After Gandhi. The film’s broad story of hurried negotiations, the squabbling roles of the three key Indian leaders (Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah), and the murky genesis of the final India-Pakistan border, all that was broadly in accord with my shallow understanding. Jinnah’s negative role is probably exaggerated. Mountbatten comes across as something of a hero; I don’t think history backs that up. The focus on the fairytale lives of the viceroy and his retinue skews the account. A quick glance at online reviews reveals much disquiet about the film’s historical accuracy. All that said, even though the movie’s depiction of the horrors of that period has an anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim slant, for my purposes it did the job I asked of it – any country born out of such violence inherits many generations of tension.

I’m fascinated by Jawaharlal Nehru, who bestrode Indian politics until his 1964 death. I can’t say my research was exhaustive, but I did read recent biographies by Shashi Tharoor, Walter Crocker and Guha. Tanveer Ganhi, who plays Nehru in the movie, is a real look-alike, but his depiction makes light of Nehru’s sophistication and intelligence, and I place no store in what I saw. Gandhi is portrayed by Neeraj Kabi as a cud-chewing fossil, and Denzil Smith’s Dracula-like performance as Jinnah is equally dubious.

So was Viceroy’s House worth a viewing from a historical research perspective? Not especially. Yet it has to be said that glimpsing the magnitude of that 1947 schism has, I feel, helped ground my own findings.


Crocker, Walter. 2009. Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate. Random House, New Delhi, India.

Guha, Ramachandra. 2007. India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. Macmillan, London.

Guha, Ramachandra. 2014. Verdicts on Nehru. Penguin, New Delhi, India.

Tharoor, Shashi. 2003. Nehru: The Invention of India. Arcade Publishing, New York.