Viceroy's House and Practices of Remembering the 1947 Partition of India

Curator's Note

"Cinema […] forms a collective memory of momentous events and mobilizes memory for an imagining of the community." (Bhaskar 2005)

Released in March 2017, Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House entered into the crowded cultural space of the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Partition of British India. Chadha describes the film as an "upstairs-downstairs" narrative, which addresses both "the negotiations upstairs" between political actors and elites and also the staff downstairs, who represent "ordinary people who had been affected by those decisions" (Cox 2017). Chadha frames the film as her own personal perspective on Partition: she links the historical narrative of the film to the history of her own family, who themselves were displaced at the time of Partition, as well as to her position as a "British Indian – a product of Britain and India’s inextricable links" (Chadha 2016). The film has provoked debate over its historical account of the events and the way it represents the dynamics between colonisers and colonised. This raises the broader question of how the colonial past is mobilised in contemporary cultural discourses – and how memories of the past inform the articulation of postcolonial identities.

In our project, Migrant Memory and the Postcolonial Imagination (Leverhulme Trust), we explore film as a technology of remembering. Viceroy’s House is thoroughly embedded within the complex sets of processes by which people remember the past. The production of mnemonic meaning occurs at multiple interacting moments or sites of remembering, implicating various kinds of practices and processes. The film itself articulates a set of mnemonic meanings through the conventions of filmic communication. As the trailer suggests, Chadha’s textual and aesthetic choices speak to multiple film lineages including heritage cinema, Indian popular cinema and Hollywood. Beyond this the film enters into a set of public discourses, including film criticism, reviews and other media commentary, which situate and resituate the film in historical trajectories and remembered narratives, not least including Chadha’s own public contribution to these debates over the meaning of the film. The mnemonic meaning of the film is also produced in vernacular contexts of reception through which the content of the film is brought into productive dialogue with personal first and second-hand experiences of Partition. At the same time this reception is informed and refracted through engagement with public discourses. It is precisely in the interaction between these sites and moments of mnemonic meaning production that postcolonial identities emerge.

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