Gurinder Chadha on Viceroy’s House: ‘I grew up feeling partition was somehow our fault’

Bend It like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha discusses her lavish new drama set at the end of the British Raj, when the Indian subcontinent was momentously divided up.

Joseph Walsh
Updated:

Viceroy’s House (2017)

Viceroy’s House (2017)

Seventy years on from the independence of India, director Gurinder Chadha presents Viceroy’s House, a sweeping epic about the end of the Raj – Britain’s colonial rule in India – on a scale that hasn’t been seen in British film since Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning Gandhi (1982).

Chadha’s film is an upstairs-downstairs take on this pivotal moment in India and Pakistan’s history. Upstairs are the British, with Hugh Bonneville starring as Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, who with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter (Lily Travers) travel to New Delhi to negotiate the handing back of a country that had been ruled by the British for over 200 years.

Downstairs is Hindu Jeet (Manish Dayal), recently employed in the house as a valet to Mountbatten, perfectly positioning him to watch his country’s plans for liberation take shape. Jeet is also courting an old flame, Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a young Muslim girl also employed at Viceroy’s House.

Viceroy’s House (2017)

Viceroy’s House (2017)

“My journey through film has been about challenging perceptions on how someone like me is viewed,” explains Chadha, when speaking at a conference in London. Her first film, Bhaji on the Beach (1993), a comedy about a group of Punjabi British women on an excursion to Blackpool, began a career that has focused on people on the margins of society. It was followed by her most successful film to date, Bend It like Beckham (2002), a coming-of-age film about a young Sikh girl, Jess (Parminder Nagra), rebelling against her parents by pursuing her passion for football.

With both films, Chadha had to battle against the odds to convince financiers that a movie focused on an Asian protagonist would work in western cinemas. It took four years to get Bend It like Beckham financed, but Chadha proved the naysayers wrong when the film became a huge hit in both the UK and in America.

The idea of making a film about the end of the British Raj and the birth of independent India had its origins in Chadha’s 2006 appearance on an episode of the BBC series, Who Do You Think You Are? In the show, Chadha returns to her grandfather’s home in Jhelum, located on the Pakistani side of the Punjab, a region that was divided in two by the British. This partition led to one of the largest and most painful migrations in human history, with 14 million people displaced overnight. Speaking about her appearance on the show in a later interview, she said: “I had always been a British filmmaker and was always talking about Britain, but here I was about to touch something that I had been denied all my life.”

Viceroy’s House (2017)

Viceroy’s House (2017)

Viceroy’s House allowed Chadha to explore her ancestry, diving headfirst into one of the most (literally) divisive moments in world history. “I grew up in Southall and Ealing, but the partition of India was always something that was there. I didn’t have a homeland. When people would chant ‘Pakis out!’ or ‘Go home’ or ‘Go back to where you came from’, I would turn around and say, ‘I don’t have anywhere, because where my home was is now Pakistan, which is a different country.’”

Chadha’s subsequent research for Viceroy’s House provided her with the chance to challenge the narrative she had been told all her life: that British hands were tied when it came to dividing India. “I grew up feeling partition was somehow our fault – that after living together for centuries, suddenly communal violence between Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus flared up, and we could no longer live together. The narrative I was taught was that the British had no choice but to divide India.”

She adds: “It gave me the strength to tell this history from my unique personal perspective – no one in India or Pakistan would have made this same film. My perspective is British and Punjabi, and it’s what’s driven me to make a human, healing film about the ‘people’s partition’.”

Gurinder Chadha

Gurinder Chadha

Narendra Singh Sarila’s book The Shadow of the Great Game was a pivotal text that informed Chadha’s research by providing a very different perspective on the rationale behind the division and liberation of India. “Partition was a political act about Britain making a strategic decision to strengthen its role in the world as the Empire drew to a close,” says Chadha. “This is not an easy subject to confront, but it’s hugely important for future generations.”

For Chadha, Viceroy’s House became an opportunity to provide a new perspective, born out of her Sikh-Indian heritage and experiences growing up and living in Britain. “My parents always said the British did ‘something’, but no one knew exactly what it was. The concept of British ‘divide and rule’ felt abstract; it didn’t explain how this tragedy could have happened. After making Viceroy’s House, I understand the global significance of partition and the true tragedy of its legacy.”

The result is a film that adds a new dimension to cinematic explorations of this controversial moment in history. It also finally offers the opportunity for voices from both India and Britain to reflect on the past, preserving and telling afresh both the personal and public stories of a bygone age for a new generation of viewers.

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