Partition 1947 shows Gurinder Chandha's flawed sense of historical depiction of events

The film portrays Mountbatten as a humanist, but his role in dividing India does not make him the person as has been shown.

 |  8-minute read |   02-09-2017
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The first thing that comes to mind about Gurinder Chadha’s Partition-1947 is why does a film need two English names even though one is for its Hindi version.

Chadha has based the film on two books – Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s much-popular Freedom at Midnight (1975) and another lesser known book by Narendra Singh Sarila - Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold story of India’s Partition (2006).

Although Sarila’s work is lesser known among popular books, it is valued more in academic circles and was translated in Hindi by reputed publisher Rajkamal, which published it in 2008 (even before Harper Collins published its Indian edition in 2009).

Its first edition was published by Carroll and Graf publishers New York in 2006. There are a number of books on Partition and some much more important than these two, but Chadha wanted to make a feature film and not a documentary. So, she perhaps chose the text which has some dramatic elements in it, just as Freedom at Midnight.

Gurdas Maan earlier made a film on this book’s narration of Boota Singh’s tragic story, Shaheed-e-Mohabbat in 1999.

Chadha’s film was released in the UK in March 2017 as Viceroy’s House and in India as Partition-1947 in Hindi in August this year to mark the 71st year of Partition and to coincide with the opening of Partition Museum in Amritsar on August 17.


The film begins with the arrival of Lord Mountbatten in India to oversee the grant of Independence under the new Labour government of the UK which came to power following the defeat of Conservative Winston Churchill in 1945.

Churchill was considered diehard anti-India and critical of even Mahatma Gandhi, generally a favourite of British rulers. Churchill had made nasty remarks even on the 1943 Bengal famine, which had killed lakhs of people.

Sarila was the secretary (or ADC) to Lord Mountbatten and the film is made in a way from Mountbatten’s perception.

The film portrays Mountbatten as a humanist and pro-Indian person, but his role to divide India at breakneck speed without bothering about consequences (of massacres among communities) does not make him the person in history as has been shown in the film and related books, which have been written on the testimony of Mountbatten himself.

Mountbatten was related to British monarchs and has no political experience, he remained a high navy officer before and after being the last viceroy and first governor general of post 1947 India.

The film is otherwise moving and brings tears to the sensitive viewers as has happened with Fatima Bhutto and myself and another Sikh gentleman watching the film in Chandigarh during the same show.

But dispassionate analysis of the events in the film and in history does not absolve Mountbatten, Congress leaders and Mohammad Ali Jinnah of the worst crimes against humanity in history. Nearly one million Hindu, Sikhs and Muslims killed each other in communal clashes, more than 14 million suffered the worst conditions of migration in the scorching heat and rainy weather of August, not to mention the untold tortures and crimes against women of all three communities.

Chadha’s own ancestors suffered during Partition and her concern is well taken, but her sense of historical depiction of events is flawed.

In fact, the man Cyril Radcliffe who was asked to divide India and Pakistan by drawing just a line on the map felt guilty himself and did not charge any fee for the “dirty work” he was asked to do.

It is “revealed” in the movie that the plot was already hatched by the Churchill government and the boundary lines were drawn by him in 1945 itself - the same were to be drawn by Radcliffe, it was ensured. The secret papers were shown to both Radcliffe and Mountbatten, who is being shown to be devastated by the conspiracy of Churchill and yet fulfils the colonial design to keep Soviet Union away from the post-partition political game. To create Pakistan as the new colony of US imperialism since Nehru was showing pro-Soviet tilt in his thinking.

But a feature film needs a story and a hero and heroine. So, Partition has Jeet, played impressively by Manish Dayal, and Aalia, played equally well by Huma Qureshi. A Hindu boy and a Muslim girl, who fall in love and meet in the end like most films with happy endings.

But all that come after lot of Partition-related pain.

Interestingly, Raja Samar Singh Sarila, son of Narinder Singh Sarila, has played the role of his father as Mountbatten’s ADC in the film.

A lot of creative literature, paintings and films have been dedicated to Partition and will continue to be done. Perhaps Indo-Pakistan joint venture in Punjabi, Khamosh Pani or Garm Hawa, may have scored better than any other films on the subject till date. 

Partition-1947 could have been more impressive, had it focused more upon the last five years. The film fails to bring to notice the one positive attempt to avoid Partition made by the Cripps mission, first in 1942 and then in 1946 as Cabinet mission led by Stafford Cripps, who was a leftist among Labour leaders and had offered the federal scheme of India. If one looks at it after 70 years, the federal India proposed by Cripps was the best option in those days to avoid Partition. It could have saved million lives and many millions suffering.

The Mountbatten’s biggest criminal act was to force Partition in just two-and-a-half months - from June 3 partition plan of Mountbatten to August 14, 1947 (birth of a new nation Pakistan).

He had time till June 1948 and there was no need to rush through. The best time, if at all there were any, could have been November 1947 or April 1948 - the weather conditions would have improved and the armed forces too would have been properly trained to stop massacres.

In fact, Dr BR Ambedkar was in favour of Partition but with peaceful mutual migration of communities. Alternately, Jinnah and Nehru could had been stricter in not allowing any mass migration of communities and both countries could have lived with minorities in more peaceful manner after 1947.

But a film is a film and it must have a story. So, Viceroy's House has communal tensions in its own staff, who fight in front of him, though may not be to that extent as has been exaggerated in the film, making an excuse for Mountbatten to hasten the Partition process.

He did it, but history can not absolve him of shirking away his responsibility of not controlling violence under his command. Most of the violence took place from August 1946 - Muslim League direct action call to August-September 1947.

Ironically, Mountbatten did not die naturally as he was assassinated by Irish nationalists at the age of 79. And they claimed it to be just revenge from British colonialists.

Chadha though has an eye for detail, which she uses in this film effectively. The film was not allowed to be shown in Pakistan on the pretext that Jinnah has not been shown in a good light, which is partly true.

But the film shows the human urge for love and empathy despite all the hatred generated by religious or other divisive tendencies, and gives a message that the “heart cannot stop beating even during a bloody partition”.

Also read: How Gurinder Chadha's film shows all our heroes had feet of clay



Chaman Lal Chaman Lal @profchaman

The author is a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of Understanding Bhagat Singh.

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