”I hope that Viceroy’s House will help people understand the logical consequences of the politics of hatred and division. That can’t be the future of humanity. That’s not something that people can be proud of.”
As a writer-director, Gurinder Chadha has repeatedly translated her personal experience as a Punjabi-British woman into uplifting, crowd-pleasing movies, from her ground-breaking 1993 debut Bhaji On The Beach to her box-office smash Bend It Like Beckham, and now brings us the epic historical drama Viceroy’s House, the astonishing true story of the final months of British rule in India.
A Personal Journey For Writer-Director, Gurinder Chadha
The 1947 Partition of India has always been part of Gurinder Chadha’s life. Though raised in West London, and born in Nairobi, Kenya 13 years after the controversial Mountbatten Plan struck a jagged line through the north-west of the freshly independent Union of India to create the Dominion of Pakistan, the British-Punjabi film-maker describes herself as someone who grew up “in the shadow of Partition”.
Her ancestors lived in the foothills of the Himalayas, now on the Pakistani side of the border. Her grandparents lived through the tumultuous events which saw sectarian violence between India’s minority population of Muslims (many of whom craved their own homeland) and the Hindu and Sikh majority, bring about the greatest refugee crisis the world has ever seen; in a vast diaspora, an estimated 14 million people were displaced during Partition and up to a million died. An independent India was a cause for celebration, and the creation of Pakistan was equally a cause for celebration amongst many millions of Muslims. But the process by which this was achieved was what caused such terrible suffering for so many Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.”
As a writer-director, Chadha has repeatedly translated her personal experience as a Punjabi-British woman into uplifting, crowd-pleasing movies, from her ground-breaking 1993 debut Bhaji On The Beach to her box-office smash Bend It Like Beckham. This tragic aspect of her cultural and family background was something she’d always shied away from as a film-maker because, she says, “it was too dark, too traumatic.”
Then, in 2005, she took part in the BBC’s family-tree-exploring programme Who Do You Think You Are? which took her back to her ancestral homeland. “I was quite reticent in my feelings about Pakistan,” she recalls now. “ In the programme as I arrive in Pakistan, I say I prefer to refer to it as ‘pre-partition India’. But I was in Jhelum, trying to find my grandfather’s house, and eventually we found it with the help of the people who are now living there.” Chadha was struck by the warmth and generosity of the Pakistanis she encountered. “But what was so moving was that we met all these elderly people, and I’d ask, ‘how long have you been living here? Did you know my grandfather?’ And everyone I met said, ‘Oh I came in ’47. I came in ’47. I came in ’47’. So I got this real sense that an entire Sikh community had been expelled from Pakistan and replaced by another community, just as that new Muslim community had itself been expelled from India and their own ancestral homes. That really brought home to me the meaning of Partition.”
It was then Chadha realised that she had to confront her fears and make her movie about Partition. “I decided I wanted to make a film about what I call The People’s Partition,” she explains. “I didn’t just want to explore why Partition happened and focus on the political wrangles between public figures, I also wanted to make sure the audience understood the impact of Partition on ordinary people.”
Chadha therefore conceived the idea of setting her story entirely in Viceroy’s House, the British Raj’s seat of government in Delhi, to create an “Upstairs, Downstairs vision of Partition,” which would focus on the negotiations upstairs between Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, and the country’s political leaders Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah, whilst interweaving the stories of the Indians downstairs (their hopes and fears in relation to how these negotiations will impact their own lives).
“In the film, Viceroy’s House is almost a character in its own right”, says Chadha “It was designed by Lutyens and took 17 years to build. Its imposing architecture was an expression of Imperial power, intended to intimidate. I’m sure that when it was completed in 1929, no one could have imagined that in less than 20 years it would become the home of the first President of India (and it remains the largest residence of any head of state anywhere in the world!).
Conceptualising The Story
As Chadha’s conception of how to tell the story developed, she approached Cameron McCracken (Executive Producer and Managing Director of Pathe in the UK) to help progress the project. He brought in the BBC, the BFI, Ingenious and Indian co-producer and co-financier, Reliance (the largest media company in India). Deepak Nayar also came aboard as lead producer. This combination of British and Indian backers gave Chadha the opportunity to make the kind of film she grew up loving, but which she feels are now few and far between: the British historical epic. Whilst bowing down to their genius, Chadha sees her movie as being in the same tradition as David Lean’s A Passage To India (1984) and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982).
“David Lean has always been one of my favourite film-makers,” she reveals. “I love those huge, epic-canvas British films. I think it’s sad that we don’t make those kind of epic, populist films as much because they somehow help define who we are as a nation. They tell us who we are by going back, looking at our history to understand our present. That is exactly what I wanted to achieve here, to reach out to the broadest audience possible and remind them of this hugely important event that has been largely forgotten.” But whilst the film may be in the same tradition as other Raj movies, Chadha’s movie has a very different point of view. She is the first British Asian female director to examine the role of the British in India.
“Growing up in England, I was brought up with the commonly held historical narrative that in 1947, after a long freedom struggle led by Ghandi, the British wanted to hand India back, so they sent Mountbatten out there to do it, but we started fighting each other,” she continues. “And because of that, Mountbatten had no choice but to divide the country. So in a way the violence of Partition was our fault. This is the version of history portrayed in Attenborough’s seminal film Ghandhi. But now if you look at the evidence, that is a very one-sided interpretation.”
“After two hundred years of British in India, the Indians came together against their British rulers in the 1857 mutiny or first war of independence depending on which history book you read. The British won back control but were shocked at the strength of the mutineers and so instigated the British Imperial policy of ‘divide and rule’ and sowed the seeds of segregation between Hindus and Muslims.
The film opens with the quote:
“History is written by the victors”
“My intention is to examine how someone like me can look at new historical evidence and explore an alternative historical narrative to what I’d been taught as a girl.”
When the British grip on India started to weaken, conflict erupted in the growing power vacuum and the British accelerated their departure, perhaps genuinely believing it would reduce violence, or perhaps simply wanting to run away from the mess they had created, or perhaps there was an altogether different reason that the post war map of the world was presenting the Empire?”
As well as being a product of Partition, Chadha is also a former BBC journalist so felt a strong responsibility to work hard on the research and get the facts right. Which made writing the script for Viceroy’s House a journey of discovery in itself.
Writing The Screenplay
Initially, the prime source used by Chadha and her co-writer, Paul Mayeda Berges (who also happens to be Chadha’s husband), was Freedom At Midnight (1975). “Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s account of the British Raj’s final year is the seminal book on Partition,” says Chadha, whose father loved it and always kept it on his shelf.
“We spent a couple of years working on a script based on that book,” she says, “then one day I was in St. James’ Palace at a reception for the British-Asian Trust charity, of which Prince Charles is the Patron and I’m one of the ambassadors. Given that the Prince of Wales is actually Mountbatten’s great-nephew (Charles even considered the former Viceroy his “honorary grandfather”), I couldn’t resist telling him that I was making a film about his great-uncle. Prince Charles said, ‘You have to read this book, The Shadow of the Great Game by Narendra Singh, the Maharaja of Sarila and Mountbatten’s ADC [aide-de-camp or personal assistant], because it tells you what was really going on’.”
In a strange coincidence, only a few days later, Chadha was approached by an aspiring young actor in India while promoting the release of her latest film, and it turned out that he was 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 I really want you to have the book.’ And he gave me the same book!” (Years later, he would be rewarded with a part in the movie – as Mountbatten’s ADC!
By the end of the same week, Chadha was sitting with author Narendra Singh (by then a distinguished Indian diplomat, having spent 20 years as the Indian Ambassador to France), in a club in St.James. It turned out that, while researching another book (about the Maharajas) at the British Library in 1997, he’d happened upon two de-classified “Top Secret” documents from 1945/47 which revealed the concern about handing India back and political arguments suggesting how some of northern India could be annexed to serve British military and strategic interests in the region. He also came upon a map for partition that had been drawn up by the British government as early as 1946. The conclusion Singh drew from this was that, despite its public stance of neutrality, Britain was clandestinely supporting Jinnah’s idea of Partition as a way of protecting its oil interests in the Persian Gulf while at the same time blocking the Soviet Union’s access should a left-leaning newly-independent India gravitate towards the Russians. The theory was that if the British supported the creation of a Muslim homeland separate from India then that new country would be indebted to Britain and help protect British interests in the region. However, Singh was convinced that Mountbatten was not aware that Partition was the preferred outcome for many in the British government.
“That revelation took the script in a whole new direction” said Chadha, “and we brought on board a new co-writer, Moira Buffini (Jane Eyre). Together we depicted a Mountbatten who was not the Machiavellian architect of Partition but a man caught up unwittingly in a bigger political game.”
That depiction will come as a shock to many. Whilst he was attending the Toronto Film Festival, Chadha relates a story she was told by McCracken. He was in a cab with a Sikh driver who asked what film he was working on. When he talked about Viceroy’s House the Sikh was almost apoplectic, telling McCracken to “make sure you tell the world what an evil man Mountbatten was. That man destroyed India!” People who still harbour such feelings for the last Viceroy, she thinks, “may well be unpersuaded by my interpretation of events, but I have read the documents and spoken to the people closest to Mountbatten at the time and it feels like the right interpretation. In any event, what happened in 1947 has been pored over for the last 70 years and my interpretation is not the first and it will not be the last. But at least it will stimulate debate!
Aside from Mountbatten, Chadha was equally keen to ensure that all the protagonists were fairly treated. “One of the things I worked very hard to do was make sure that no Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs were singled out for blame for the violence of Partition. That violence seemed to me to have arisen from a series of blunders on all sides. Whilst making the film it was vitally important to me that I could sit and watch this film in London, in Delhi and Lahore and not feel uncomfortable. I needed the film’s message of reconciliation to speak to Pakistanis, to Indians, and to the British; and to speak to people’s hearts as well as their heads. To make a purely political film, I might just as well have made a documentary. But to reach a broader audience, I needed to entertain as well as educate. That’s why I chose to interweave these political events with a love story – after all, even when the world is falling apart around our ears, life goes on – people’s hearts endure pain but also have huge capacity for love!”
The film’s narrative is fairly evenly split between the political wrangling of the real historical figures upstairs; and the emotional downstairs scenes, centred on the fictional romance between Jeet (a Hindu personal valet to Mountbatten), and Aalia (a Muslim translator for Mountbatten’s daughter Pamela).
“There’s a moment when Jinnah and Mountbatten are talking and some servants come in with tea and cakes,” Chadha says, providing an example of how she tried to maintain this balance. “Jinnah talks about Pakistan and the Muslim servant turns to his Sikh colleague, smiling and excited, and of course his colleague looks back, deeply upset. Normally in Raj movies, the servants would be wallpaper, but in mine I hope you feel these momentous political beats being discussed ‘upstairs’ by the leaders impacting on real people ‘downstairs’ with real emotion.”
Bringing It Home
Gurinder Chadha’s sense of responsibility to tell a story which wasn’t just truthful, but also reflected the experience of her own family during Partition, never waned. While filming those difficult scenes in the refugee camp, her nine-year-old son Ronak visited the set and said, “Mum, it’s so dirty and smelly here, and all these people look very upset. I don’t want to be here. Why are you doing this?” So Chadha told him the story of Partition. “I said, ‘my family, my grandma, my uncles and aunties, a lot of our relatives — this is where they were. They had to leave their home overnight and they ended up in a place like this. And that’s why I’m telling this story. So people understand what happened back then so it doesn’t happen again’. It was a very important moment for me, because it’s really for him. It’s for my children. It’s for that generation so whilst living a privileged life in leafy north London, they understand the context of our history.”
She strongly feels the film has a powerful resonance today, and a universal one, too. The refugee camp shoot coincided with the worldwide publication, on 2 September, 2015, of the shocking picture of the three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, who was found lifeless on a Turkish beach.
“Every day on the news we were watching Syrian and other refugees in camps, victims of the world’s great powers waging a proxy war in Syria. And when the little Syrian boy was found washed up on a beach it was heart-breaking, because it was like, ‘oh my god, I’m spending all this money to recreate misery for a thousand actors pretending to be refugees, recreating something that I’m seeing happen in real life all over again. That really was quite depressing.”
Almost a year later, on 23 June, 2016, while Chadha was cutting the film with editor Valerio Bonelli, the British public voted to withdraw from the European Union. “Valerio is Italian with an English wife and children who are Italian and English,” the director explains, “so as we were watching the drama of Brexit unfold, he was just devastated.”
On the screen of their editing suite, Chadha’s downstairs characters agonised about their futures: would they have to move from their homes if they ended up on the wrong side of the border? Would their communities become divided? Bonelli himself was feeling a similar sense of disquiet.
“What really came home to him was what happens now to him and his family? Where does he belong?” Chadha says. “And so that went into the film, somehow. You’ve got a situation [with Brexit] where a nation was divided and you had the same thing – pushed to an extreme – with Partition. That’s one of my favourite things about the film. It’s not a stuffy period piece that belongs to 70 years ago. It is very relevant today.”
Chadha hopes that Viceroy’s House will help people understand, as she puts it, “the logical consequences of the politics of hatred and division. That can’t be the future of humanity. That’s not something that people can be proud of. So hopefully my film will appeal to those people who feel that politicians let them down when they peddle hate. It shows you the direct consequences of what can happen when you promote division. It ends in death, destruction and violence.”
Not that violence is something you see much of on screen in the movie. Chadha chose to focus her film on the 6 months leading up to Partition, rather than on Partition itself, and she made a very deliberate choice to keep much of the terrible violence of Partition out of frame.
“I did not want to recreate the full extent of the horror and risk alienating a broader audience,” she states. “I don’t like physical violence on screen in any event, but I also felt it just wasn’t the point of my story. It somehow felt like re-opening old wounds. So in the riot in the staff compound, I tried to make it more abstract – with the use of generic costumes, for example, so it was difficult to make out who was attacking whom. I didn’t want the audience to think, ‘oh these are the Muslims killing the Hindus, or here come the Hindus killing the Muslims’. I just wanted to show that violence was erupting on all sides.”
“For similar reasons” says Chadha, “I did not want to end the film on a traumatic note. Yes, the events surrounding Partition were terrible, but the 70th Anniversary this year is also a cause for celebration because Pakistan was born and India achieved its independence. So I decided to end the film on a note of hope with Jeet and Aalia marrying”.
However, quite late on in the editing process, McCracken suggested that ending the film in 1947 with a wedding scene for Jeet and Aalia was too small. “He wanted the audience to feel the resonance of those distant events right now,” Chadha explains. “That ending didn’t feel right, because at that point of the film the audience is concerned with something much bigger than the fate of just Jeet and Aalia.” McCracken brought out an article Chadha had recently written for The Guardian newspaper, in which she wrote about her family and provided a photograph of her aunts and uncles as children around the time of Partition.
“He talked about using the photo, and I had the idea: why don’t we take a picture of them today? One was in Kenya, one was in Australia, two were here in the UK. So I got them to stand in the same poses and we dissolve from the young children in the first picture, to the elderly Sikhs they became in the second, and you realise, ‘oh my god, that’s them, they survived these horrible events. There’s hope!’ That’s what makes the film moving.”
So the ending of Viceroy’s House not only brings the 70-year-old events of the film firmly into the present, but also concentrates its epic vision into a simple, personal, intimate, family moment. “I think this final beat makes you re-examine everything you’ve just seen,” says Chadha. “Hopefully what that does for you as the audience is to make you feel like you’ve just witnessed something very personal. Jeet and Aalia being reunited is in one sense pure Hollywood. But it is also exactly what happened to my grandparents, reunited in a refugee camp!”
Initially, she confesses, she wasn’t sure about personalising the end of the movie in this way. “Because it made me feel too vulnerable. But actually I think what it does is, if there are any Muslims or Hindus or Sikhs who might feel, ‘Oh, this film didn’t tell my story,’ then at that moment they should feel, ‘Oh. Okay. It’s her story’.”
And here we perhaps find the heart of Viceroy’s House. As previously mentioned the film opens with the famous quote, “History is written by the victors” (most often attributed to Winston Churchill). But who is the victor here? Perhaps the British Asian woman who got the chance to tell her own family’s story.