For films like Bhaji on the Beach and Bend It Like Beckham, Gurinder Chadha mined personal experience for inspiration. But while her new film, Viceroy’s House, often has a light, personal touch, the time period and subject matter it covers – India’s Partition in 1947 – is decidedly heavy, examining 70-year-old wounds that haven’t completely closed.
As England’s final Viceroy (Hugh Bonneville) prepares to leave India to self-government, he is drawn into a vicious, long standing political battle between India’s Muslim minority and its Hindu majority (a schism the British helped create over their 300 years of rule). The fight culminates in the creation of a new nation for the Muslim population – Pakistan – along with one of the largest refugee migrations in history as Hindus and Sikhs moved into India and Muslims moved to Pakistan. 14 million people were displaced and 1 million died in the violence that erupted.
Despite the personal element – Chadha’s Punjabi Sikh family was among those forced to migrate to India – and the great pains taken to represent all sides equally, the film has attracted controversy. It’s been accused of taking liberties with history and being anti-Muslim - an accusation that prompted Chadha to write a response in the Guardian.
To get her perspective on all of this, I sat down with the director after she attended a sold out Viceroy’s House screening and Q&A in Sydney.
How did the Q&A go?
Very well. It was packed.
Were there any challenging questions?
There was one question from a lady who asked me about what I thought of Australia’s border policies, given the border of Partition. That was something I didn’t really didn’t want to get drawn into. But these questions come up. We had a screening in Edinburgh that was very lively because there were a lot of people there who want Scotland to be independent from Britain.
Borders are very topical right now.
So… I was in tears at the end of this movie.
You’re Punjabi right? “Bhasin”.
Yes. My grandparents weren’t part of the migration in ’47. They left Lahore [now in Pakistan] a few years earlier.
Why did they leave early? Did they know trouble was coming?
The writing was on the wall, so they took whatever they could carry with them and went to Delhi and eventually Bombay, where my father was born. They were given refugee status and a nominal amount of money from the government later on.
I was thinking about that part of my personal history, that difficult journey while watching the ending of the movie, which packs a huge punch.
I tend to do that with the endings of my films.
What made you want to tackle such a complicated, potentially controversial story?
This was a story about our shared history in Britain, India, Pakistan. A story of the last days of an empire in India, which hadn’t been told from my perspective – somebody of Indian origin who’s now British. And I think that that has made the film quite refreshing for a lot of people in Britain, India and Pakistan.
That point of view definitely comes across – but you make a lot of effort to balance the different perspectives.
Totally. I didn’t want to make a film that was going to make people angry and rake up all kinds of feelings of violence. If I had done that, I would’ve considered the film a failure.
My job was to make a film on Partition that looked in a very balanced way at what happened and why – as a kind of hidden history. Once I uncovered why it happened, I wanted to then move us on from it so the story had resonance today. It’s very important as a filmmaker, whatever film you make, whether it’s period or contemporary, that it has meaning for today in some way.
So much more could be made of this period in India. Have you thought about doing a series?
I do have something in the works with a long running TV series set in India. I’ve been working on that for about a year. I have a series bible, a pilot episode and now I’m just going on to the second episode. It’s set in British India and looks at the empire from the perspective of a household. We’re doing it with ITV in England.
One of the things I found so striking about the movie is that it’s 70 years later and there are still many problems stemming from the Partition and the divisions that the British helped create. Animosity between Muslims and Hindus, escalating unrest in Kashmir…
Well I think the seeds of it are still rooted in 1947 and that’s not really been dealt with because no one really wants to talk about Partition.
You’ve said that you don’t want the movie to come across as anti-Muslim. But do you think it’s anti-Partition?
My ancestral homeland is now in a different country that I don’t have access to. Right now I can’t get a visa to go to Pakistan being of Indian origin. I tried to get a visa recently and couldn’t. That is a sad situation for me. So from a personal perspective, it is anti-Partition in the sense that I don’t have access to my homeland. If India and Pakistan had a really healthy relationship and I felt like I could go at any time and visit my grandfather’s house and stay in my ancestral village then I wouldn’t have any problem at all. When you take the tension out suddenly it’s a different scenario.
But I don’t want to deny Pakistanis their country. That’s why it was important to me to have those celebrations in Pakistan as well as India.
At the screening I went to, when Hugh Bonneville appeared onscreen for the first time, there was a huge sigh of recognition and pleasure in the audience. The Downton Abbey fans showed up.
I’ll have to tell him that. How lovely. He’s such a nice guy.
Was there pressure to get someone recognisable in that role or make that role more prominent?
I didn’t have to make the role more prominent but with any independent movie you need actors who are recognisable. Otherwise it never gets financed. And if you’ve got a film with Asian characters in it or black characters in it you’ve got even more points against you commercially so you have to balance that out. That’s why so few films get made with people of colour.
How did you find recognisable names for the South Asian characters (besides Om Puri)?
I auditioned everyone else. I really liked Manish [Dayal] in The Hundred-Foot Journey. Really emotional, vulnerable. I really liked him as an actor. And then Huma Qureshi is an up and coming actress in India and she did a blind audition. I auditioned six or seven actresses and she was great.
At this point, I think I’m contractually obliged to ask you about Bend It Like Beckham…
It’s a film that did very well here. The Australians love the Poms, whether they want to admit it or not and Beckham just reminded a lot of people of an England that they were familiar with and not familiar with at the same time. And I think the film appealed to the sense of humour here - I loved all those Australian comedies like The Dish and The Castle. Sweetie was the first one I discovered. And then you have Muriel’s Wedding, Strictly Ballroom…
There is a similar sensibility.
I don’t see those kinds of comedies anymore. But I’m a huge fan of Chris Lilley’s and I recently discovered Black Comedy on the ABC. The white Australian girl saying she’s black… That is so clever and she is so good. It’s offensive and so funny at the same time. I love that sort of humour.
Why do you think there aren’t more cross cultural, relatable movies like Bend It Like Beckham?
It’s not easy to make those kinds of movies work commercially. I know. I get sent the scripts.
That film was a struggle. Everyone rejected it. Everyone said no one wants to see a film about an Indian girl playing football. And where will you get an actress who can bend a ball like David Beckham? It’s never going to happen. So it had everything stacked against it. There probably are people trying to make films like that but they come up against the same hurdles.
Let’s break some news. Will there be a sequel?
I wouldn’t know how to do a sequel. It’s such a perfect little thing in itself and even when it plays again people watch it so it’s better to wait another five years and rerelease it 20 years on with a different cut.
We did do the West End stage musical of the film which was massive. It was amazing. I really liked working on that musical. I was able to take what people loved about the film and characters and turn it into songs and it turned out to be one of the most wonderfully creative and moving experiences of my life. And it’s such a great show. I absolutely love it. I hope we can bring it to Australia one day.
What have you been watching?
The last film I went to see was Beauty and the Beast with my daughter.
How did that go?
I freakin’ loved it. I was cross with it because it had eaten up all the screens in England so my movie was getting squeezed so that was a bit sad, but I did not let that make me bitter about the experience with my daughter. We both sat there with our 3-D glasses on and sang along to the songs.
Viceroy’s House is currently in theatres, through Transmission Films and in partnership with SBS Movies.
Follow the author on Twitter.
Watch Gurinder Chadha's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at SBS On Demand right here: