With hit British films like Bhaji on the Beach and Bend it like Beckham Gurinder Chadha is certainly a woman to be admired. After all this is the same woman who launched the careers of Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra.
She also went on to work with one of Bollywood’s biggest name – Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Bride and Prejudice and has been working away for the last seven years on what is probably her most personally invested film –
Viceroy’s House hits our screens on 3 March and is a based on the final months of British rule in India.
The film’s story unfolds within that great House. Upstairs lived Mountbatten together with his wife and daughter; downstairs lived their 500 Hindu, Muslim and Sikh servants. As the political elite; Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, converged on the House to wrangle over the birth of independent India, conflict erupted. A decision was taken to divide the country and create a new Muslim homeland: Pakistan. It was a decision whose consequences reverberate to this day.
The film examines these events through the prism of a marriage – that of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, and a romance, that between a young Hindu servant, Jeet, and his intended Muslim bride, Aalia. The young lovers find themselves caught up in the seismic end of Empire, in conflict with the Mountbattens and with their own communities, but never ever giving up hope.
Hugh Bonneville stars as Lord Mountbatten and Gillian Anderson as his wife, Lady Mountbatten. Lily Travers, Michael Gambon and Simon Callow round out the Brit cast while the Indian and Pakistani cast is led by Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Om Puri, Tanveer Ghani, Denzil Smith and Neeraj Kabi.
We were lucky to catch up with the inspirational Director ahead of the film’s release. In an exclusive to Asian Standard Gurinder talks film and heritage
I had always grown up under the shadow of partition, just like so many of us. My ancestral homeland I didn’t have, because that was in a new country you call Pakistan and so my family are originally from Jhelum and Rawalpindi. About 8-9 years ago, I did a BBC documentary, ‘Who do you think you are’ and I went there for the first time and was overwhelmed at how much warmth and love I got from the people in the town of Jhelum, where my grandfather’s house was and people welcomed me. They said you’re our daughter, this is your home, this is your town you belong here.
I was very very touched by this and I went looking for my grandfather’s house, when I eventually found it (this was the house where my grandmother had upped and left as a refugee with her children) what was there now were five other families living there, but they themselves had been refugees living from the India side. So, they had come there and it was at that moment that reality of partition really hit me and I felt I really wanted to do something on it. But I had grown up with the education that I have got from British schools which basically said that partition was our fault because Mount Batten had come to hand India back, but somehow, we started fighting with each other and violence ensued, rioting ensued and Mount Batten had no choice but to divide the country and that was what I had grown up with. However, as I started researching of course and found the second book that my film is based on. The first book is ‘Freedom of Midnight’ and second book, ‘Shadow of the great game’, it transpires that actually the history I had been taught was wrong and that actually partition was a political act that had been planned.
So how much time did your research take?
This film has taken seven years in the making
What was your biggest take away after making this film?
That history was written by the victors. We have to stand up and tell our own histories. We have to really record our own place in the world and from our perspective.
How relevant is the film to today’s generation?
I think the film is really timely right now, because seven years ago, Obama was in power, there was no Syrian refugee crisis there was no Brexit and no Trump and so in that respect, the world is a different place now. And as a result, the film has a very timely message for people.
What happens when people start labelling whole communities and people start preaching hate, you have the politics of division, divide and rule and very quickly can escalate to death as we saw with partition.
What was it like working with Om Puri, who is sadly no more?
I have known and respected Om Puri for many years. There are not many in our business who have worked in India and England and America and Om was one of them. He was very excited when he got the script. We had been planning to work together for a very long time. He was very excited because 35 years ago, he had been in Ghandi. The first British film since then that was looking at partition and now Viceroy’s House
How do you think Indian audiences will react to the film?
The film is a very distinct British Asian point of view. An Indian filmmaker from India would have made a very different film I am sure. A Pakistani filmmaker from Pakistan would have made a very different film. So, I hope people in India appreciate my specific position and that it’s different to theirs.
We just returned from the Berlin film and there was an Indian film critic present I was keen to hear his view as he was the first to see the film from India and as it happens he was very pleased to see the film and he was grateful that it was completely fresh narrative.
Are there any real-life influences in the film?
Yes. The fact that I was so moved by ordinary people in Pakistan who wanted to connect with me was terribly moving, because the story you always hear about India and Pakistan are at war with each other, but the reality I saw with ordinary people was the opposite. So, that really informed the fact that I wanted to
make a film of ordinary people all living together and then how these policies of divide and rule started to divide them within the house, but also how it wasn’t just cut and dry. Om Puri plays a Muslim in the film, a Muslim freedom fighter for India. So, the dilemma that Aalia has, (Huma Qureshi’s character), which country is she going to give up? Is she going to give up India for love or is she going to go to Pakistan? These are questions that everybody is being asked, their loyalty and really wanted that ordinary people’s experience and that came from me meeting ordinary people who had been affected.
Do you think some people might be put off by the Hindu – Muslim conflict love story, something they’ve seen in several movies?
It’s not a traditional kind of Hindu Muslim love story, with conflicts and all the rest of it. It’s more about a metaphor for the two countries. One is Pakistan the other is India. Both of them are confused as to what they should do and where their loyalty should be, rather than the usual conflict of you can’t marry a Hindu or you can’t marry a Muslim or whatever. It’s not that kind of a love story at all. It’s very much, here are two people who care about each other, but the politics of the situation of their country is having an impact on their love affair.
What made you choose the cast that you have for the film?
I just cast everybody who I felt fit the part. Gillian Anderson I’ve seen her do period films before and she
is amazing. She hadn’t even finished reading the script and she called me and said I am in. I really want to do this film, it’s really important and then Hugh Bonneville, same thing. He has done charity work in India and so he really wanted to make this film in India.
With Huma I, didn’t know her. She auditioned for the film and did an amazing audition, so I cast her on the strength of her audition and of course now she has become a bit of a Bollywood starlet. And then Manish Dayal, I had seen in Hundred Foot Journey and thought he was very empathetic and so I liked the idea of him playing that role, even though he is from America.
Then I cast Jazz Deol, who plays the lead he is from Britain, he is from Southall and he is a lovely young actor, who I tipped to be very big one day.
And we’ve seen that you have a very good eye for it. Keira Knightly, and Parminder Nagra. You’ve launched some very successful careers. How does that feel?
It feels great.
You made Bhaji on the Beach in 1993 and now Viceroy’s House 2017, as a woman what has your experience been like in an industry which constantly questions equality for women?
Well, I think you only have to look at statistics in a study called Women calling the shots.
I judge it by what’s coming out. Twenty-five years ago, I made Bhaji on the Beach and I was the first Asian woman to make a film in this country, twenty-five years later I am still the only Asian woman making films as a living in this country. That’s a real indication of how hard it is for people to break into the industry and how it is to get films made. I have to really push and work hard to get a film made,
if I want to make a film with Asian people in it. If I wanted to make a film with English people and cast stars, it would be much easier for me to get things off the ground, but if I want to make a film about us and our history and our stories, it’s double harder in this country. So, this is why it’s really important for me that people from our community come out and support me in this film and come out and see the film on the 3rd, 4th and 5th March. And if possible they book their tickets in advance, then the message goes out to the cinemas and the industry that actually Asian people care about their own history. It’s not just Bollywood they are after, but British Asian stories that are important. Because if they don’t go out and support these kind of films, it’s just me making them no one else is going to be able to get a chance to make them. So really if we want a British Asian film industry, people really have to come out and support me in the cinemas.