An interview with British Indian director Gurinder Chadha whose new film Viceroy’s House tries to recreate the events that led to the Partition of India
Pawan Luthra (PL): Gurinder, you’ve brought us some wonderful films, discussing themes such as migrant assimilation (Bhaji on the Beach), a coming of age story (Bend It Like Beckham), and a singing dancing rom-com (Bride and Prejudice). Now you’re bringing us Viceroy’s House which takes us into some deeper, perhaps murkier waters. Tell us about this film.
Gurinder Chadha (GC): Viceroy’s House is set in 1947 during the last few months of the British Raj in India. The story follows the Mountbattens and their negotiations with Nehruji, Gandhiji and Jinnah Sahib. The idea is to relook at the events that led to the Partition of India in the run up to Independence. The film is based on top-secret British documents that were withheld for 50 years. Everything that we know about Partition and that we think happened, is being challenged in this film.
PL: How do you think Indians will react to seeing this movie? Do you expect that they’ll be surprised?
GC: My mother grew up in Rawalpindi as a girl. And she said, around that time, she had friends that were Muslim, Christian, Hindu, she of course was a Sikh, and she said everybody lived happily together. When it was Eid the Muslim families would share sweets; when it was Diwali, the Hindu and Sikh families would share sweets. Everybody lived side by side and everybody respected each other. And then, she said, in 1947, it was like someone had done black magic on their community. People who had been living side by side suddenly turned on each other. And she believed, to this day, that the British had something to do with it.
PL: That’s what the evidence shows, that Britain carved two nations out of India for its own benefit. It wanted a Pakistan regime friendly to Britain to control Karachi and the borders of Afghanistan. Was it the British who created the seeds of division?
GC: If you watch the film, you’ll see how certain negotiations were taking place in Britain, not in India, which led to the Partition of India in the way that it happened. It seemed to be a very haphazard, very violent, turbulent decision, not very well planned. The film looks at that and the blunders and lack of planning that took place, but also the real reasons why it happened. It had a lot to do with British and American interests in the region and people being very nervous of the Soviet Union. You could say it was the beginning of the Cold War.
I think most people, like me, grew up with the history of what the British Empire had put out, which is that Mountbatten came to India wanting to hand India back but because we all started fighting with each other, he had no option but to divide the country. That’s the history I grew up with, that somehow Partition was our fault, and the film totally challenges that point.
PL: I understand the film comes from a deeply personal place for you. Your family were Sikhs in Pakistan, fled India and from there went to Kenya. You heard stories of Partition from you mother and grandmother, as we all did, but then you also went back to Pakistan as part of a television show. Did the story of the film have some links to that experience?
GC: Yes, I grew up under the shadow of Partition like so many people. My ancestral homeland was in Jhelum and Rawalpindi and we lost everything. My family really became refugees. Growing up I didn’t have an ancestral homeland I could visit.
About 11 years back, I made an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? a BBC documentary series where I went looking back at my roots, and ended up in Jhelum for the first time.
I was a bit reticent about going there because, obviously, there have been several wars between India and Pakistan, and relations are generally not good, but in the end when I got to Jhelum, I was overwhelmed with the warmth and affection with which I was greeted. The whole town had come out and they said, ‘Welcome, you’re our daughter this is your home. We’re so glad you’ve come.’ They were very respectful.
When we found my grandfather’s house – the house my grandmother had left in the clothes she was standing in, with her five small children, one of whom died of starvation on the road – in that house now, were several families who themselves had been refugees from the other side.
The reality of how Partition affected ordinary people, who are still living today, really came home to me in that moment. There was a lot of pain, and I felt that I wanted to make a film on the subject so that we could talk about it, debate it and then move on.
PL: I understand you also had some dealings with Pamela Hicks, Lord Mountbatten’s daughter, and Prince Charles who gave you some papers about his favourite uncle. How much of the story of Viceroy’s House came from input from the British Royal family?
GC: It was Prince Charles who initially alerted us to Narendra Sarila’s book The Shadow of the Great Game, which is the second book the film is based on, the first is Freedom at Midnight. In writing the script, we met with Lady Pamela Mountbatten Hicks, but we also met with many other people. I met the grandson of a butler who still works at Rashtrapati Bhavan, whose father had worked there for the goras. We met an Indian naval officer, who was young at that time, now sadly he has passed away, and he was with Mountbatten at the time and talked about how vain he was. We met with academics, experts and ordinary people who talked about their own stories. We did a lot of research and from all that we made our story.
PL: Shashi Tharoor’s new book An Era of Darkness has caught the imagination of Indians over the past year. It brings out, quite clearly, with evidence, how the British systematically decimated first the economic and then the social fabric of a thriving and largely peaceful society. Where does your film stand? Is it coming from the British perspective or do we see a more grassroots perspective?
GC: I think Shashi Tharoor has done an excellent job in his book, but it is written from an Indian perspective. I am British. I’ve grown up in Britain, so my perspective is very uniquely British Asian, it’s actually very British Punjabi. In that sense, I’m mindful of the role of the British then and now, as well as India and Pakistan then and now. I’m able to stand back and tell this story from a unique point of view.
Shashi Tharoor actually came to see my film in London. Afterwards when he called me I said, ‘Don’t say anything, Shashi, I know you’re going to think that I was too soft on the British.’ And he said, ‘No, quite the contrary’. He thought it was very effective, the way that I had made a film that was less angry than his book. I was trying to be conciliatory. I want people to move on. To understand what happened and move on, 70 years later. He thought the way I showed the remorse that Mountbatten and others felt for what had happened, was very powerful and very emotional.
There are different ways to tell that story of empire, and everybody has their own version. This is my version, not only as a British Asian, or as a woman director, but as a mother. I think that has a lot to do with how I’ve made this film.
As a mother, there are choices that I made about how I wanted to show, or not show, violence. How I wanted to tell you the horrors of what happened but do it in my own way – not by having these huge scenes where you have Muslims killing Sikhs, and Sikhs killing Muslims.
Right from the beginning, I knew it was not my intention to stir up any kind of communal hatred, but to tell the story in a very human way. In that sense, I feel this is a film that Gandhi would have liked very much. It follows very much his perspective on the world.
But also, being a Sikh myself, the most important influence for me in the film is the words and the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev ji. I took a lot of solace in his work as I was writing and making the film. The most important one is, “Before you call yourself a Muslim or a Hindu or a Sikh, call yourself human.” Then look at those definitions. That’s a critical statement of his. Among his disciples, his loyal followers, he always had a Muslim and a Hindu with him. It’s about unity, not division.
PL: Moving on to another of your films, the famous dialogue, “Can’t make round chapattis” from the film Bend It Like Beckham always scores a laugh. You’re known as a film maker who likes stories about strong women. How much of you is that?
GC: Everything. Bend It Like Beckham is about me and my father, and me and my mother. As a director you put yourself in all your work, but Bend It Like Beckham more so as it is very autobiographical. I didn’t play football, but I did bend the rules of what was expected of me. And it’s a film that people really love. Here in Australia a lot of people have been going on about it – from all different backgrounds. And there is great dialogue in the film, and often even I quote it. One of my favourite lines is “Anyone can cook Aloo Gobhi but who can bend a ball like Beckham?”
PL: If you had to make a sequel to Bhaji on the Beach, 20-odd years later, how would you say Asian women in Britain have changed? Any plans to make a sequel to Bend It Like Beckham?
GC: I’m not making a sequel to Bend It Like Beckham, I don’t know where that rumour came from. I did make a West End stage musical last year of Bend It Like Beckham. In that, I kind of updated the Asian community experience in Britain in some ways, even though it was set in 2002. But it’s a wonderful musical and I hope we can bring it to Australia, because in many ways I thought it was better than the film.
In terms of Bhaji on the Beach, I think that in Britain today, we have a third generation who have no idea about the sort of struggles the first and the second generations went through to feel confident with their identities. Today, you have an enormously strong Asian woman presence in Britain. You have a lot of women who own their own businesses, who are successful in all the professions – lawyers, Members of Parliament, Ladies…
PL: But only one famous film director like yourself. You have been quoted as saying, “When I made Bhaji on the Beach, 25 years ago, I was the first Indian woman to make a feature film in Britain. 25 years later, with Viceroy’s House, I’m still the only Indian woman. There is no diversity in British cinema… a terrible indictment on our industry and society.”
GC: It just goes to show how hard it is to get movies made. Very hard to get your voices out there. But secondly, I think it’s also a profession that a lot of Indians are very reticent to let their children go into, since it’s much more economically secure to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant!
Rapid Fire With Gurinder
Are you more Punjabi or more British?
Tandoori chicken or chicken schnitzel?
Indian cricket team or English cricket team?
Favourite Australian film?
Favourite Australian celebrity?
You’re casting your next film. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan or Nicole Kidman?
Favourite female politician and why?
Best piece of advice to give to your daughter?
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
What would you have done in 1947 if you’d been in charge?