Capturing the Raj: visual narratives of British India

By Mobeen Hussain | @amhuss27

In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of period adaptations based on the British in India. This spat of television and film productions depicts particular historical narratives that romanticise the British Empire and hark back to the good-old-days of British imperialism. Indian Summers (2015), Victoria and Abdul (2017) and Viceroy’s House (2017) reveal a lot about the kinds of narratives that producers and the British public are interested in telling, championing and watching. With the exception of Indian Summers, these productions were post-Brexit and released in the year of the seventieth anniversary of India’s partition.

Indian Summers is a TV miniseries set in the foothills of the Himalayas during the summer of 1932. The plot centred around the social politics of the British in India alongside Indian resistance to colonial rule. Critics hailed costume design and engaging stories in a way that reminded me of the genre of hill station romance, popular during the late colonial period. In contrast to other portrayals, however, the lives of Indians, as they intertwined with British, were shown in a more nuanced way. Writer Paul Rutman asserts that nostalgia for the Raj has never been of huge interest to him: ‘while making the show I was under no illusion that people…would be uncomfortable with what is shown’. Rutman had also spoken of a potential fourth series that would focus on the intricacies of partition. However, it was cancelled after only two series (the second had aired in 2016). Perhaps the producers felt that viewers would not enjoy such an introspective probing into Britain’s past. Instead, production retreated to continuing the romanticisation of the Raj with the release of Victoria and Abdul and Viceroy’s House, which packaged the Empire as the moral centre of narratives with images of quintessential Englishness.

Victoria and Abdul, based on the book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant by journalist Shrabani Basu, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul Karim. Karim was a clerk from Agra selected to travel to England for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 to assist with the celebratory banquet. A burgeoning friendship developed between the two, much to the chagrin of court officials and other servants. And Victoria, quite contrary to her well-documented opinions on the rights of women and her colonial subjects, is shown to be disgusted by the racial prejudice Karim faces. The film was criticised for depicting one relationship as representative of the Queen’s, and the general attitude to her Indian subjects: notably subjects not citizens of the British Empire. However, the more pertinent question is why this narrative was chosen over a plethora of other stories, both British and Indian? The answer is naively obvious, it was the most comfortable story to tell; one of English benevolence towards a lowly Indian servant.

Viceroy’s House followed Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, as he is dispatched to Delhi by Clement Attlee’s government to get the British out of India. He brings forward the date from June 1948 to August 1947, a six-month period, due to concerns about mediating between conflicting groups. Amongst various scenes of native violence, the viewer is shown a map of India previously partitioned during the Churchill years and an angry Mountbatten who feels betrayed by the emergence of it; a depiction which ultimately absolves him of blame. As writer Fatima Bhutto’s review surmises, the message of Viceroy’s House is that ‘freedom is not something fought and won by Indians; it is a gift from the Mountbattens and the empire they represent’. Director Gurinda Chandra rebuked any claims of falsification of historical events and insists that she does not ignore the freedom struggle but celebrates it. Again, the more difficult question of Britain’s role in drawing and creating those borders still was not tackled. Instead, a love story was neatly slotted into the main narrative to appeal to a wider, cinema-going audience.

Given the intent and aspirations behind the making of Indian Summers, why aren’t more difficult and complex questions being asked about the role of Britain in India?  A 2016 YouGov poll suggested that 59% of the British public think that the British Empire is something to be proud of. While the poll cannot be taken as definitive evidence of attitudes, it does suggest that most viewers do not have an appetite for a multitude of voices on screen. Many question whether film-makers should indeed take responsibility for the way certain historical events are portrayed; wouldn’t creative expression be at stake? Yet, historical blindspots manifest themselves in contemporary public conversations and perpetuated through our curricula, as has been suggested in recent campaigns to broaden our educational systems to include a variety of perspectives regarding colonialism. Telling stories through the popular mediums of TV and film is an important way of doing ‘public history’. They could be utilised effectively to raise national awareness. Instead, the stories on our screens are made more palatable to British audiences before they can be swallowed.


Image: Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul Karim in 1893. (Public domain via Wikimedia commons)

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