Better known for her comedic British Asian cinema, Gurinder Chadha’s upcoming ‘Viceroy’s House’ is a world apart from her norm. The film stars Hugh Bonneville, Michael Gambon, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi and Gillian Anderson to name a few and follows the story of partition from a unique view.
BizAsiaLive.com caught up with the director recently in London. She spoke candidly about her journey of making a period film about the British Raj.
Congratulations on the film. There have been many films about the partition, but ‘Viceroy’s House’ isn’t about India and Pakistan fighting against each other.
Thank you. It’s important for me that you say this publicly, on social media or wherever so that I can get the Asian community behind us because ultimately I made it for them and for those generations that don’t know anything about our history. So, for me, it’s really critical that people come out and support the film in the cinema that first week – that first weekend particularly. If they don’t, then it will be off and they’ll never get to learn about our history. We have to spread the word publicly with the press and everything.
You’ve said that this film came from the time you took part in BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, and the realisation of where your own family came from is what made you want to do the film.
Yes, it was being there in Pakistan in my grandfather’s house that he built in Jhelum, and the way people there welcomed me to the town and said, “This is your town, you are our daughter, this is your home.” Even though for me I was thinking “This is Pakistan, this isn’t my country.” But the way they welcomed me, the ordinary people. Then in the house, all the people that were living in that house were themselves, refugees. Like my grandmother had upped and left her home, they had done the same thing and were there. So for me it was that response of ordinary people, and I wanted to tell that story. But at the same time, as we started researching, I covered all this information about what we had been taught at school was not true and that actually partition was a politically motivated act, by the British government at the end of the war as they were looking to redraw the map. It was very important that I tell that story too. Hence I did the upstairs-downstairs so I could follow the political manoeuvres and machinations upstairs whilst looking at the impact of those manoeuvres and decisions of ordinary people downstairs.
Everybody knows what an amazing film-maker you are and you’ve made films that everyone loves. However, ‘Viceroy’s House’ is also different due to being on a much grander scale, and as well as all the factual information that you had to research, the film production side too. How were you able to develop yourself through this process?
I really wanted to step up here. I’ve done lots of quite comedic films, so I really wanted to make a sort of sweeping epic British Raj movie, with the relatively small budget that I had. I mean it’s an important part of history. Very few people in the world know about this history. Nobody knows this in America, for example, people don’t know that India was partitioned. Very few people know what actually happened, so I wanted to honour that and I wanted to tell the story in the most moving and sweeping way that I could.
The casting of the film is particularly striking. How did you go about getting such a cast?
I really liked Manish Dayal in ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’ (2014). I thought he was a very empathetic character and actor, and so I thought he worked beautifully in terms of playing Jeet. And I think that Huma Qureshi gave a fantastic audition; very earthy and real. Gillian Anderson is someone I’ve been a fan of for many years. I wanted to send her the script and she immediately said yes. And Hugh (Bonneville) is great as Mountbatten. He plays that sort of British bumbling Royal guy quite well. He also has links with India – he does charity work. Michael Gambon, of course, you know is a great British actor as is Simon Callow. So I wanted it to look and feel like a traditional British movie. I just wanted it from a British Asian perspective.
What would you like to say to the non British Asians who don’t know the anything about the partition?
Well, we as British people all share a history. We have a shared history of what happened in the past between our nations and what happens today. This film really gives a good historical background and context to why people like me are here today. In that sense, I think that the British generally like historical epics and period films, so this is in that tradition of ‘Gandhi’ (1982) and ‘Passage To India’ (1984) and all this films. It’s just that Viceroy’s House is from a very modern, kind of diverse perspective. So I think a lot of my English friends will find that very interesting.
‘Viceroy’s House’ is set to hit the big screens on 3rd March in the UK. In India, it has been postponed to an August release.