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Partition:1947 review — A wonderfully enacted political drama that fails to exploit its full potential

Release Date: 18 Aug 2017 / 01hr 46min

Cinestaan Rating

Shriram Iyengar

Director Gurinder Chadha makes the mistake of trying to tell too many stories in one film.

At one point in Gurinder Chadha's Partition: 1947 (Viceroy's House in English), Louis Mountbatten (played by Hugh Bonneville), having just escaped the threat of assassination at the hands of his manservant, stares back tiredly into his dressing mirror. He is stripped of his ceremonial medals, swords, and the shiny naval uniform he takes pride in. It is this vulnerable, broken hubris of a man with a tryst of his own destiny that stands at the centre of this partition drama by Gurinder Chadha.

If the director had stuck to telling this intriguing tale of a self-absorbed, ambitious man who found himself caught in one of the most bloody, as Jinnah in the film calls it, surgeries of civilisation, it would suffice. It is Chadha's obstinacy in trying to tell too many stories that end up complicating an already delicate plot.

The arrival of the Mountbattens in India signals the start of the film. Like the Mountbattens, Chadha allows the audience to explore the workings of the inside, and the outside, of the Indian political hemisphere in her film. From the beginning, we are made to understand that the situation was dire. Mountbatten was not here to handle a steady transfer of power, but rather to officiate a hurried retreat for the British Empire already ravaged by the World War.

The Viceroy has to his side the support of his wife, Edwina (played by Gillian Anderson) and the machiavellian Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon) to plan the smooth transition. At the same time, Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal) is initiated into the army of servants who maintain the Viceroy's house. At one point, the Viceroy welcomes the new boy by saying, "We are not very different, you and I."

The story begins to complicate with the introduction of Jeet's love, Aalia, a Muslim girl employed at the house. While she remains aloof to his initial moves, he pursues her with a reminder of their past meetings. Just as things begin to fall in place for the couple, the news of the partition arrives. All hell breaks loose.

Chadha's film has a noble heart, but heart alone does not make for cinema. The portrayal of Louis Mountbatten as a vainglorious man who is manipulated into playing the gentle face of the British Empire, while Churchill and the rest plotted the partition is a little naive. Mountbatten, after all, was the man who oversaw the recapture of Burma in the World War II. To show him as being completely unaware of the true intentions of partition is to play pretend.

The other problem is the portrayal of the Mountbattens as gentle, kind people entrusted with a cruel task. As the country falls to pieces, village by village, the family is shown taking the lead in helping on the ground, providing medical, security, and rehabilitation. Whilst true to a certain extent, it carries with it a touch of anglophilia. The portrayal of Indians and Pakistanis as people who broke into scuffles with the announcement of the partition, or that the employees of the Viceroy's house break out in open revolt against the officers before the implementation is a little too difficult to believe. However, the director does offer a sensitive take on the extent of the tragedy by delving into the inconsequential. The sight of a cutlery being divided, and librarians arguing over which batch of encyclopedias will go to Lahore or Delhi explains the extent of the partition's complexity in government terms.

The portrayal of Jinnah, in particular, has already earned the wrath of a new Pakistani generation in the form of Fatima Ali Bhutto, who called it 'a servile pantomime'. It does come across as a pantomime portrayal, with the main defense of Jinnah's partition idea being 'they never listened to me'. For a lawyer who was educated at Lincoln's Inn, and considered one of the sharpest legal minds of his generation, this seems a little petty.

But films are not meant for political expositions. They are meant for drama, and Chadha does well to capture it, albeit in bits and pieces. The conflict between Louis Mountbatten and the machinations behind him, the helplessness, the crushing of his hubris are portrayed brilliantly. The ambition, wile, and intelligence of Edwina Mountbatten as the woman behind also come through. Both performances exemplify the calibre of Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson. However, the love story of Jeet and Aalia, stretched thin at times, feels like an unnecessary deus ex machina to keep the plot going.

At times, the political drama feels more intriguing than the human tale itself. On second thoughts, considering the number of human tales that have come out of the partition, a cold, concise political drama might have worked better.

Manish Dayal and Huma Qureshi are engaging, but do not have much to dig with. The separation between the two, caused by the partition, brings some much needed angst to the film. However, Chadha soon papers it over with the happy ending. Om Puri is completely wasted as a character who has just lost his lifelong fight for a united country. The actor's last performance is credible, but not enough to sate his talent. Perhaps none will be.

The partition remains a sensitive topic in the sub-continent, and Chadha knows this well. A grand-child of a survivor of the partition, she has mentioned that this topic is close to her heart. To her credit, she manages to capture the inner workings that actually led to the bloody moment. From Sir Cyril Radcliffe's bewildered realisation of the task at hand, to Ismay's manipulations, and Mountbatten's idealistic defeat, the director manages to capture moments that have remained hidden so far.

However, it is in the familiar that she lets down. Her abstinence of showing any violence (even when it happens to our characters, we as an audience arrive too late, and the characters all escape to safety) makes the film feel a little superficial. The portrayal of the struggle, families torn apart, friendships and hearts broken, feel a little incomplete. The portrayal of the refugees and the struggle of identity seems a relevant current topic, but it fails to have an impact with the many stories rising and falling behind. Neither does the director delve too much on the emotions and the pressure suffered by each individual character, even the secondary ones, to fully exploit the dramatic potential of the moment.

A word of praise for Neeraj Kabi, who has the unenviable task of playing the Mahatma. However, unlike Ben Kingsley's portrayal, or those that have followed, Kabi brings a vulnerability and humanness to the Father of the Nation with his dark-skinned, broken-tooth Gandhi. He portrays Gandhi as a man watching his ideals being torn apart by politics. His utterly human offering of goat's milk dish to an awkward Mountbatten elicited a rare laugh from the audience, making it seem like a touching moment of humanity for a personality that has only been worshipped on screen.

In the end, like the event, Partition: 1947 leaves a bitter aftertaste in its wake. Beautifully shot, capably enacted, and sensitively captured, it fails to peek further behind the curtain than it could. Chadha's film offers glimpses of the possibility that the film could have been, but fails to achieve them to its own detriment.