There have been quite a few films made about the independence and subsequent separation of India into three countries – India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh – towards the end of the British Empire. Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy from 1986 looked at the events from the point of view of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the final British ruler of the country prior to independence in 1947. Jinnah from 1998 was a fairly straightforward biopic of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Pakistani independence movement.
Partition from 2007 took a more personal view, looking at the lives of family members who were separated along religious lines. The new film Viceroy’s House, directed by Anglo-Indian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, is yet another look at these important events, but this time from the point of view of the members of Mountbatten’s household, who witness the historic transfer of power, and the political and social upheaval of the period, from front row seats. The film – which has been described as having an Upstairs-Downstairs, or Downton Abbey feel – stars Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson as Lord and Lady Mountbatten, and Manish Dayal and Huma Qureshi as Jeet and Alia, members of Mountbatten’s staff who fall in love, and has support from a plethora of British character actors, including Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, and the late great Om Puri.
Films about the independence and partition of India have elicited some excellent film music: the scores by John Scott, Nigel Clarke and Michael Csányi-Wills, and Brian Tyler for the films mentioned in the opening paragraph are all superb, and now we can add A. R. Rahman’s score for Viceroy’s House to that list. Although it has long been known in India, by now it should be immediately apparent to everyone else that Rahman is one of the world’s great film composers.
In just looking at his output since winning the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, scores like Couples Retreat, The Hundred Foot Journey, Million Dollar Arm, and Mohammad: The Messenger of God show him to have a mastery of both Western classical and Indian traditional musical idioms, a talent for writing beautiful themes, and a real emotional connection with the stories he’s helping to tell. Viceroy’s House is another one of those scores which has those three elements in abundance.
Rahman says that director Chadha’s expectation was “to have something very classic, very rooted and at the same time universal,” and so to capture this ideal he uses a traditional western orchestra, with heavy emphasis on strings and piano, augmented by a number of distinctive Indian instrumental colors, notably the sarangi bowed lute, the bansuri flute, the santoor dulcimer, sitar, tabla percussion and taal chimes, plus occasional voices which bridge India’s religious divides.
There are a trio of central thematic ideas: one relating to the Mountbattens themselves which I’m calling the Lutyens theme, after the Lutyens Palace in Delhi where the Viceroy of India had his official residence), one which acts as a love theme for Jeet and Alia, and one which relates to the political climate of the time, which I’m calling the Partition theme. All three themes play in complementary fashion – sometimes appearing in the same cue, sometimes in counterpoint! – with subtly changing orchestrations and arrangements.
The Lutyens theme is the very first musical idea heard in the opening cue, “Viceroy’s House,” performed on lyrical, warm, but serious strings. After a busier sequence for lighter instruments – sprightly and cheerful woodwinds lines, to illustrate the hustle and bustle of life in colonial India – the re-statement of the theme on santoor, augmented by bansuri and orchestra, beautifully illustrates the conceptual ideas of Indian and English cultures existing side by side in the house. The theme returns frequently throughout the score, including “Swearing In,” which begins with light, pretty piano lines, but gradually picks up the rest of the orchestra, and features some impressive brass swells, and a statement of the main theme on bansuri.
“Limerence” introduces the beautiful, mystical love theme for Jeet and Alia, a Hindu man and a Muslim girl who fall in love while working in Mountbatten’s house. Usually carried by a bansuri with soft textural accompaniment from the santoor and a wash of synths, the Love theme re-appears frequently too, allowing the story of Jeet and Alia’s romance to act as a microcosm for the fate of India as a whole. For example, in “Two Broken Hearts,” the initial performance of the Love theme on bansuri segues into a lovely contrapuntal performance against the Lutyens theme on solo violin, which overflows with sentimentality.
The Partition theme first appears in the second cue, “Displacement,” a haunting piece for sarangi and orchestra, which is dramatic but just a little sad, as if the music knows that the partitioning of the country will cause as many problems as it solves, dividing families along religious lines. In “Gandhi” the Partition theme appears on piano, augmented by pizzicato strings, harps, and chimes, and comes across as a little downbeat and introspective.
Later, “Ahimsa” – named after one of the cardinal virtues of Hinduism, the principle of nonviolence toward all living things – revisits the theme with haunting vocals and a lamenting statement for strings, while the chimes, gongs, and synth textures that surround it give the title of the cue an ironic juxtaposition, as the nervous tension of the piece appears to signify a prelude to violence, nervous and anticipatory.
This leads directly into “The Partition,” one of the best cues on the album, a dramatic, insistent piece which allows an electronic pulse to underpin a highly classical statement of the Lutyens theme transposed to cello, giving it an aspect of tragedy.
However, Rahman quickly switches to an equally emotional version of the Partition theme which seems to be his attempt at musically capturing the crux of the story’s political core: he pits Hinduism, represented by female vocals, against Islam, represented by male voices sung in the Qawwali style associated with Sufiism, which many will recall from the way James Horner used it in scores like The Four Feathers. The bold, vivid finale is quite outstanding, featuring a virtuoso violin performance against set the searing Qawwali vocals.
As good as these pieces are, the final four cues are where Rahman’s music really shines. “The Birth of Two Nations” is a celebration of the successful realization of Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s mutual dreams of religious freedom, and features the full orchestra, the Indian instruments, and an angelic western choir.
The whole cue is a sequence of optimistic chord progressions and celebratory swells which gradually become more triumphant. The explosion of thematic majesty at the 2:00 mark is wonderful, as are the tender bansuri textures towards the end, although the conclusive performance of Partition theme is – cleverly – a little bittersweet, allowing the listener to understand how the creation of the two nations was far from ideal for everyone.
“Exodus” expands on this concept further, with a tragic-sounding combination of bansuri, sitar drones, and Qawwali vocals, concluding with an emotional statement of the Lutyens theme on cello, and drawing parallels between the biblical exodus of Jews from Israel with the way Muslims were forced to leave India for Pakistan in the aftermath of the partition. “Jeet Finds Alia” is the culmination of the romance story, a final performance of the Love theme for bansuri and cello which is absolutely gorgeous, full of depth and feeling.
The conclusive “The Cost of Freedom” brings everything together, showcasing lively, effervescent, classical string phrases, tempered by more solemn cello chords. Performances of the Lutyens theme, the Love theme, and some florid improvisational variations for cello, violin, and bansuri, allow the score to maintain its thematic focus, and give the four main characters – Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Jeet and Alia – a sense of closure.
Viceroy’s House is a truly outstanding score, and for my money is the best ‘western’ score of A. R. Rahman’s career to date (note that I have to make that distinction because my knowledge of his work in the Indian film industry is woefully inadequate). The interweaving of the three central thematic ideas, the skilful interpolation of the Indian musical instruments into the classical symphony orchestra, the genuine beauty of the themes, and the dramatic application of the music to illustrate the deeply complicated political relationship between Britain and India in the 1940s, is tremendously impressive, and should appeal to anyone who is prepared to embrace a little bit of sub-continental flair in their music.
At this point, anyone who remains on the fence about Rahman’s Academy Award success for Slumdog Millionaire, or who considers him to be little more than a flavor-of-the-month flash in the pan, is being willfully ignorant of what this great composer is capable of achieving.
- Viceroy’s House (2:39)
- Displacement (2:36)
- Swearing In (2:34)
- Jinnah Meets Mountbatten (1:21)
- Limerence (1:39)
- Gandhi (1:09)
- Pamela and Alia Bond (1:24)
- Dickie Is the Man (3:06)
- Two Broken Hearts (3:13)
- Ahimsa (2:46)
- The Partition (3:59)
- Classified (2:18)
- The Birth of Two Nations (3:29)
- Exodus (4:04)
- Jeet Finds Alia (3:03)
- The Cost of Freedom (5:07)
Running Time: 44 minutes 34 seconds
Music composed by A.R. Rahman. Conducted by Matt Dunkley. Orchestrations by Matt Dunkley, Tony Blondal and Richard Bronskill. Recorded and mixed by XXX. Edited by Christoph Bauschinger. Album produced by A.R. Rahman.