A passage from India... with Gurinder Chadha

| April 5, 2017

As India prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of Partition, Gurinder Chadha – acclaimed British-Asian film director, whose box office hits include Bhaji on the Beach and Bend It Like Beckham – talks to Compass editor Jennifer Cox about her new film on the subject, Viceroy’s House.

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India, an event that led to Indian Muslims being moved to the newly created country of Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs being moved from the Indian region that was to become Pakistan. It was the largest mass migration in human history, which saw up to a million people die and over 14 million people displaced. The first British- Asian female director to examine Partition, Gurinder Chadha’s new film Viceroy’s House covers the months leading up to this historic event and the effect it had on those involved, which is still being felt today.

Jennifer Cox: You’ve described yourself as “growing up in the shadow of Partition”. What do you mean by that?

Gurinder Chadha: I grew up in London and used to yearn for an ‘ancestral homeland’, but my ancestral homeland was the northern Indian state of Punjab, pre- Partition. But after Partition in 1947, my part of Punjab became Pakistan. So I never really grew up with an ancestral homeland as it had become a new country – called Pakistan.

Many of your previous films have explored the lives of Indian people living in Britain. What prompted you to make Viceroy’s House, a film exploring the impact of Britain’s decision to split India into two religiously defined nations?

I grew up knowing about Partition as my maternal grandmother came to live with us when I was a young girl. She had left India as a refugee and was full of all the terrors she had seen during Partition. Meanwhile my paternal grandmother had been there in 1947. She was forced to flee in the clothes she had been wearing, with five small children, while my grandfather was away in Kenya on business. Lives, families, homes were literally torn apart.

So this was part of my history – the idea of my family becoming refugees overnight. I never really talked about it. People didn’t talk about Partition, and they still don’t. Nobody talks about it in Britain, nobody talks about it in India or Pakistan, this very sad period in our history that affected so many people, and continues to affect so many people today.

Then about 10 years ago I did an episode of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? I went back to my ancestral homeland in what was formerly the Indian Punjab and saw the house that my grandfather had built. Initially I was quite reticent about going to Pakistan, and in the programme I said: “I’d like to call this place pre-Partitioned India, because that’s how it relates to me.” But the huge, warm welcome that I got from people in this town where my grandfather had lived was overwhelming. They said: “You are our daughter, this is your home, we welcome you.” And I got a completely different taste of Pakistan to the one I had developed from reports in the media. And then I got to my grandfather’s actual house – my ancestral home as such – which was very moving. But this house my grandmother had left as a refugee in 1947 was now filled with five families who had themselves been refugees fleeing from India at that time.

At that point I realised I needed to do something. I needed to tell a story about Partition, and I wanted to tell a story of ordinary people who had been affected by those decisions in 1947.

Gurinder Chadha directing

I imagine it could be a difficult subject to make a mainstream film about, as the general public might know nothing about it, or – like you before your trip to Pakistan with the BBC – have strongly held views?

Yes, but I wanted the film to speak to the broadest audience possible and remind them of this hugely important event that has been largely forgotten. In the end I came up with a way of telling the story from an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ point of view. The film is set in Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, which was the home of the last Viceroy of India, and is now the Indian President’s house, known as Rashtrapati Bhavan. It’s an extremely grand, 340-room, domed, marble palace, set in 130 hectares of beautiful Mughal and British landscaped gardens. It’s one of the largest presidential palaces in the world, built by the British architect Edwin Lutyens and completed in 1929. I suspect Lutyens thought he was building this grand mansion for the British to live in for another 200 years. I don’t think he imagined that 17 years later it would be turned over to the Indians.

The idea was to set the film within the microcosm of Viceroy’s House, with the house acting as a symbol for India as a whole. One story focuses on the negotiations upstairs between Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, and the country’s political leaders Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah. But we also see interactions between Lord Mountbatten’s valet, his butler, the chefs … and so we learn about the staff downstairs too. Whatever decisions are made upstairs, we see how they impact on the staff, who are themselves a mix of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

We follow the story of Jeet, Lord Mountbatten’s personal valet and a Hindu, and Aalia, a Muslim translator for Mountbatten’s daughter Pamela. And so it’s an interfaith love story, set in a country that’s about to be split on religious grounds.

Yes, Jeet and Aalia might just be extras in another film but here they are proper characters. And as decisions upstairs start taking place, characters downstairs are forced to make personal decisions based on love, nationhood or religion. Imagine! It’s like suddenly saying that London is going to be divided and all people with blonde hair have to move north of the Thames, all people with brown hair have to move south of the Thames, and all those with black hair and red hair – you don’t belong anywhere anymore. What would you do? What do you do with your homes, your possessions, your kids, their schools? Partition was like that.

Jeet and Aalia

Viceroy’s House tackles a seismic period in history, and you have framed it within a substantial-looking film. This is a lavish period drama told on an epic scale, with a cast literally of thousands and a sweeping storyscape. Were you inspired by classics such as David Lean’s A Passage to India and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi?

David Lean has always been one of my favourite film makers. I love those big-canvas, populist British films. I think it’s sad that we don’t make them much these days, because somehow they helped us define who we are as a nation. It’s a way of going back and looking at our history, to understand our present.

But I also wanted to make it intimate, because of my own family’s story. The last British film that was made on the subject was Gandhi, and that was 35 years ago, so here was an opportunity to tell a story on that epic British-Raj scale but from a uniquely British-Asian point of view. I think that combination of perspectives makes it very relevant today as we are faced with a whole new refugee and humanitarian crisis from the Middle East and in the shadow of Brexit.

You describe the house as almost being a character in its own right.

The architecture of the house is so amazing, especially when it was filled with all the extras – over 500 servants alone! Those huge, opulent rooms really came to life. And it’s an imposing building. People wonder how the British ruled millions of Indians. Well, they ruled by architecture: they built these incredibly grand buildings with vast marble colonnades and huge stately domes that inspired awe.

There are so many little touches designed to intimidate. For instance, the house is built on a slope so you have to walk uphill to get to the front door, which seems to tower over you.

Everything was planned meticulously in that respect. But we were able to go downstairs as well so it wasn’t just about the pomp and splendour. It was about the underbelly and the inner-workings of the house too. And so much of that heritage remains unchanged. For example, when I was researching the film, I had a tour of Rashtrapati Bhavan and met a butler whose uniform looked exactly the same as staff I’d seen in old pictures from the Mountbatten era. He told me that both his father and his grandfather had been butlers there during the Raj era, and the uniforms were exactly the same: the same tailors were still making them. The only thing that had changed was, instead of the Mountbatten emblem, now there were the three lions of India. So we used those same tailors to make the uniforms for our film.

You mention an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ approach. You must have been delighted to get Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville to play Lord Mountbatten?

Funnily enough, when I started working on the script for Viceroy’s House eight years ago, it was before Downton Abbey had been on TV. But yes, ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, although vilified by some, was still recognised as being utterly charming and embodying a thoroughly British sense of civility and fairness. Nobody better represented that quality than Hugh Bonneville: he has that wonderful British quality of being terribly sympathetic while still being in charge. He really does personify that class of British person: slightly self-effacing but very confident, and genuinely concerned about morality and fairness on how things should be.

I met Lord Mountbatten’s daughter, Lady Pamela Mountbatten, a few times while I was researching the film. We gave her a screening of the film as a courtesy and she was quite overcome with the way it brought back memories of that period of her life. Although she did say her father was slimmer than Hugh. Pamela’s mother Edwina is played by Gillian Anderson. She’s an amazing actress. She studied film footage of Edwina and really became her: the way she would hold her head and walk in a particular way. Gillian and Hugh had real chemistry, which makes you feel as if you’re watching a long married couple, right down to the tensions between them. Edwina was definitely more political than Lord Mountbatten, and pushed him to engage more with India’s problems.


Is it true that Prince Charles steered you towards important, little-known facts about Partition?

Well, we had been researching the story for a long time. An important source was Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s book Freedom at Midnight, a fascinating account of the final years of the British Raj in India and the seminal book on Partition (my father loved it and always kept it on his shelf). We had the rights to that book, but also met and spoke with many people who had been at Viceroy’s House at the time of Partition.

But yes, I was at a charity function at St James’ Palace and met Prince Charles. Lord Mountbatten had been his great uncle but they had been very close; Prince Charles described him as his ‘honorary grandfather’. I mentioned I was making a film about Lord Mountbatten and Prince Charles was immediately interested, asking what my sources were. We had a very interesting conversation, during which he said: “You have to read The Shadow of the Great Game by Narendra Singh. It tells you what was really going on.”

Narendra Singh had been the maharajah of Sarila and Lord Mountbatten’s ADC (personal assistant) in 1948. By coincidence, only a few days later I was in India and was approached by an aspiring young actor, who turned out to be the son of Narendra Singh. He said: ‘‘My father has written a book on Partition and I read you’re making a film on the subject…” and gave me a copy of the same book. Soon after, I met the author himself – now a distinguished diplomat – in a club in St James. It turns out that in 1997, while researching a book about the maharajahs in the British Library, a librarian had come up to Narendra and presented him with top secret documents from 1945-47, which had been hidden away in the India files.

As an Indian diplomat, Narendra understood the information they contained and, after extensive research, uncovered intelligence that Partition had been planned by the British long before Mountbatten arrived. In fact, at the end of the second world war, Britain and America were very concerned about handing India back: with the rise of Soviet expansion under Stalin, there were fears that the whole of Asia was going to turn communist. Churchill was trying to find a way to protect British military and strategic interests in the region, so helped Jinnah with his plans to create a new country in return for using that country to British military, strategic and economic advantage. That revelation took our script in a whole new direction.

You end the film on a personal note, with photos of your own family.

I had these old photos of aunties and uncles as children around the time of Partition, and I had the idea of taking a photo of them as they are now: one in Kenya, one in Australia, two here in the UK. I got them to stand in the same poses, and so they dissolve from the young children in the first picture to the elderly Sikhs they became in the second, and you realise, ‘Wow, that’s them! They survived these horrible events!’ That’s what makes the film moving. And yes, Jeet and Aalia being reunited at the end may seem like pure Hollywood. But it’s exactly what happened to my grandparents, reunited in a refugee camp. It’s a message of hope. 

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the cinema release of Viceroy’s House , Cox & Kings has created a private tour visiting some of the historic sights associated with British rule, which ended in 1947 with the partition of India. See more details >

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