Downton Abbey star and West Sussex resident Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Mountbatten in a major new cinema release, Viceroy's House, telling the story of the final chapters of British rule in India.
Hugh, who lives near Chichester, stars alongside Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow and Simon Williams in the film released on March 3.
For six months in 1947, Mountbatten, great grandson of Queen Victoria, assumed the post of the last Viceroy, charged with handing India back to its people.
“Obviously, I don’t look anything like him,” Hugh says, “but I was fortunate enough to speak to his grandchildren and his daughter, Lady Pamela Hicks who was there during the year or more that the Mountbattens were there, both before and after partition. To talk to her about him was really important to me. They showed me some home movies, and it was interesting to see him not on show. The Mountbatten in the news was this very robust figure at the centre of naval life and establishment and indeed the monarchy. To see him en famille was fascinating.
“From everything I have read he was a man who had to be at the centre of everything and had absolutely no doubt about his own certainty or in his own abilities. I think I would possibly have found him quite dominating in company, but there is no doubt that he and Edwina (Gillian Anderson in the film) had great charm and ability to make people feel at ease. They really were not snobs in terms of culture. There is a moment in the film where one of the English staff that they brought over with them is very rude and unpleasant. She is told to pack her bags and go home and that she would be better off in Surrey! There wasn’t a racist bone in their bodies.”
Viceroy’s House in Delhi was the home of the British rulers of India, a rule now coming to an end after 300 years. The film’s story unfolds within that great House. Upstairs lived Mountbatten together with his wife and daughter (Lily Travers); downstairs lived their 500 Hindu, Muslim and Sikh servants.
As the political elite – Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi – converged on the House to wrangle over the birth of independent India, conflict erupted. A decision was taken to divide the country and create a new Muslim homeland: Pakistan. It was a decision whose consequences reverberate to this day. The film was directed by Gurinder Chadha, whose own family was caught up in the tragic events that unfolded as British rule came to an end
“Gurinder’s film does not pretend to be a comprehensive account, but it intends to be fair. I think the thing I came away feeling is that there is no such thing as objective history. Every historian has an angle, whether it is just in their own surname. There will always be a point of view that is being explored, and in the same way Gurinder’s view is unique in itself. I came to it with a schoolboy knowledge of the history of that era, very much from a British perspective. It was good to read a little more bit and learn a little bit more about it all from another perspective.”
At the heart of the film, and a microcosm of the wider conflict, as Hugh says, is the romance between a young Hindu servant, Jeet (Manish Dayal), and his intended Muslim bride, Aalia (Huma Qureshi). The young lovers find themselves caught up in the seismic end of Empire, in conflict with the Mountbattens and with their own communities, but never ever giving up hope…
Hugh finished filming Downton on the Friday and flew to India on the Sunday: “We started production in about August 2015. We filmed until October that year. But they wanted to delay the release to coincide with this year’s 70th anniversary.
“We are in March now, and in March 70 years ago, Mountbatten had been in his post for a matter of weeks. The timescale of it all was incredibly short. He arrived in February or March, and it was independent in August. There had been a tacit agreement that it would be the spring of 48, but Mountbatten realised that India was a ship on fire. There were bloody massacres every day, and some people were saying that if they didn’t hand back India soon, there would be nothing to hand back. It was decided to bring partition forward.
“Some would say he made the right decision. Some would say that by putting that pressure on, there was no time to assess what the borders should be, how to cope with the families that were going to be displaced. You could argue it until you are blue in the face, but each day there were hideous massacres.
“The other thing that I found fascinating was that Mountbatten was not really dealt a full deck of cards. He was not given all the information that he could have been. Whitehall was certainly doing a tacit deal with Jinnah and the Muslim League towards creating an independent Pakistan. Mountbatten arrived with an open mind and a genuine intention of handing India back as a single entity. He did not know there had been a report high up in Whitehall. There was a lot of geo-politics, and that was not really his area at all. He was not a political man. He was a man of action.
“He said to the King ‘I am not the man to do this. What if I fail?’ The King said ‘What if you succeed?’ and that was enough to light his ambition. And in some ways he did succeed…”
For Hugh it was a first return to India since a month and a half back-packing across the north when he was 18.
“I had always wanted to go back. It was wonderful. I absolutely loved it. I can’t pretend to know more than stretches of northern India. But Rajasthan is wonderful. I feel very, very alive when I am there.”
And he is aware of the poignancy and the power the film will undoubtedly have in India itself.
“The older generations are saying it is so important that people know this story and that somehow it doesn’t sink home until you see the big story on a screen…”
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