In the movie “Viceroy’s House,” director Gurinder Chadha delivers a deeply personal story of the lives shattered as a result of the partition of India and Pakistan when British rule ended in 1947.
Unfortunately, that story — of Chadha’s grandmother, one of the 14 million displaced when the Muslim-majority Pakistan was cleaved from Hindu-dominated India — is revealed through a few title cards at the end of a plodding period drama that puts the Brits in the foreground and the suffering Indians in the background.
In early 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville, from “Downton Abbey”) arrives in Delhi to assume the post of viceroy of India, the British government’s top official. He is to be the last viceroy, assigned to smooth the process for India’s independence. He is accompanied by his wife, Lady Edwina (Gillian Anderson), and their 18-year-old daughter, Pamela (Lily Travers).
Mountbatten is shown here trying to maintain a united India, the desire of Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) and Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), leader of the Congress Party, the dominant political party in India’s parliament. But the leader of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), pushes to break off the majority-Muslim provinces into a separate country, Pakistan — though splitting two large provinces, Punjab and Bengal, where the Hindu and Muslim populations are roughly equal, proves most contentious.
Half of the movie focuses on Mountbatten’s desperate efforts to keep the peace, with the threat of civil war looming, while Lady Edwina tries to make the viceroy’s residence more welcoming to a wider swath of India’s people. And much of the script — by Chadha and her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, with a polish by Moira Buffini (who adapted “Jane Eyre” in 2011) — sounds like actors reading Wikipedia entries about India’s history with British accents.
The other half of the movie is a love triangle amid the house’s staff. Jeet (Manish Dayal), a Hindu recently assigned as Mountbatten’s manservant, has a longstanding crush on Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim woman picked to be Pamela’s assistant. Jeet used to work in a jail and was kind to one of the prisoners there: Aalia’s blind father (played by the great Indian actor Om Puri, who died in January). The romance is complicated not only by religious differences, but by Aalia’s betrothal to Asif (Arunoday Singh), a Muslim recently returned from serving in a British Army unit in World War II.
Chadha’s career is marked with films — such as the girls-soccer comedy “Bend It Like Beckham” or the Bollywood-style Jane Austen adaptation “Bride & Prejudice” — that engagingly explore the gap between Indian and British culture. Here, the need to cram historical information, a conspiracy theory involving Jinnah and Winston Churchill, nefarious doings by Mountbatten’s chief of staff (Michael Gambon), noble-sounding performances by Bonneville and Anderson, and the perfunctory romantic subplot leaves no room for the drama to breathe.
There’s a moving, heart-wrenching story about the pain behind India’s independence and Pakistan’s creation. It’s too bad that “Viceroy’s House” takes 95 minutes to find it, in a single photo of Chadha’s grandmother.
* * 1/2
A by-the-numbers historical drama, setting a routine love triangle against the backdrop of India’s independence and the creation of Pakistan.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 15.
Rating • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for violent images.
Running time • 106 minutes.