Her directing credits include Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice, and Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging. Her latest film is Viceroy’s House and it was a pleasure to speak with Gurinder Chadha.
Matt: You’ve made such a wide away of films up until now. Where did the inspiration come from to tell this particular story?
Gurinder: This is a grand, epic, historical, costume drama but it’s also a very personal story. It’s about the last days of the British Empire in India and during those last few months when Lord Mountbattens were the last Viceroy of India. India ended up being partitioned and my ancestral homeland ended up being on the wrong side of the border. It became part of Pakistan and my family ended up leaving as refugees. Growing up in London, I therefore never had an ancestral homeland of my own that I could go and visit.
That said, I never wanted to tell this story because it’s a big story. 40 million people were displaced – the biggest forced migration in human history. Over a million people died. I appeared on the television show “Who Do You Think You Are” a few years back and as part of that, I ended up going to Pakistan. I was very touched by the warm affection I was greeted with and I also realised how much people had suffered in the same way as my own family. I then decided that I wanted to make a film about the partition but given 70 years had passed, I wanted it to be more healing and more conciliatory than some of the more aggressive films that had been made previously.
Matt: I have to confess that I didn’t know about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Is that a common reaction as you’ve taken this film around the world or am I just hopelessly ignorant?
Gurinder: No, you’re not hopelessly ignorant. As the film says, “history is written by the victors.” There are versions of history that we have been told and taught at school. My film focuses on the history which is not the version that I was taught at school and not the version that the British Empire wanted to put out at the time. The film is based on top secret British documents that do tell a very different story of what happened. It’s even an eye-opener for a lot of British people.
Matt: A lot of what we see in the film are meetings behind closed doors and important items being discussed. How easy was it to research the film? How do you know what is depicted is a fairly accurate reflection of what took place?
Gurinder: Paul, my partner and writer, read about 20 books, we interviewed a lot of academics, and we met people who had actually been there at the time. The film is actually based on two books in particular. The first is ‘Freedom at Midnight’ which is known as the seminal book on partition. After that, another book came out called The Shadow of the Great Game that was written by Narendra Singh Sarila. He was a former ADC to Lord Mountbatten in 1948.
In 1997, he was in the British Library writing a book on the Maharajas and an Indian librarian came up to him and said “sir, I think you should look at these documents that have just become available.” Narendra being a diplomat understood immediately what this woman was showing him. The documents told a very different story to what we knew and so Narendra ditched the book he was working on and then wrote The Shadow of the Great Game.
Matt: How much did you learn during the process? Did your opinion about the events and their aftermath change at all?
Gurinder: Absolutely. I had a particular history I’d be told that in 1947, Lord Mountbatten was sent to India with the task of handing India back but when he got there, we started fighting with each other and so Mountbatten had no choice but to divide the country. I was at a reception at Clarence House and I met Prince Charles and I started to talk to him about the fact I was making a film about his uncle and he was very interested. He said “do you know about the Narendra Singh Sarila book?” and he also mentioned a few other things.
The documents Narendra found talked about how partition wasn’t a reaction to events at the time but was more of a political act that had been concocted at Whitehall for specific reasons. That’s what the film is about and I don’t want to give too much more away.
Matt: There is a balance in the film where you try to show the viewpoints of both sides – those who wanted a single India and those who wanted it partitioned into two countries. Was that always your intention and was it easy trying to find that balance without looking like you were trying to favour one particular side?
Gurinder: I worked very hard to make a film that was as balanced as possible. We had a very heated political situation where everybody was working to their agendas and everyone was “right” in their own way. I wanted to present everyone’s position and then show how it was the little people who got squeezed. That was my intention.
Matt: In the film there’s the story within the story – and I’m referring to the relationship that develops between Jeet, a Hindu and Alia, a Muslim. Where did that part of the film come from?
Gurinder: In a film about division and boundaries, I felt it was important to have a love story at the core. That then became the personification of the sacrifices that people make when choosing between love and nationhood in this case. The story was an amalgam of people we had met as part of our research. So they were fictional characters but through the love story, we could see the impact of the political decisions that were made.
Matt: I’m always curious about historical dramas about the casting. How much of an impact does the “look” of an actor come into play when choosing them? Do you try to cast actors that have the appearance of their real life counterparts?
Gurinder: With famous historical figures, you have to find a resemblance. You don’t want them to mimic people but with someone like Ghandi for example, people know him all over the world. It behoved me to find an actor who resembled Ghandi. It was the same with Nehru, Jinnah and the Mountbattens. The Mountbatten’s real life daughter, Lady Pamela, is alive today and we met a few times. She was very charmed by Hugh Bonneville but she said he was a lot chunkier than her father (laughs).
I think Gillian Anderson did a very good job of become Edwina in the way she held herself and walked and talked but she didn’t mimic Edwina. She was definitely Gillian Anderson playing the character.
Matt: Where was the film shot? Did you have the chance to use the actual Viceroy’s House from back in the 1940s?
Gurinder: The film was shot entirely on location and we ended up getting very lucky and shooting in the real Viceroy’s house. All of our big exterior scenes were shot there in Delhi. The house is now home to the President of India so it was quite a coup to get that permission.
The second major location where we did a lot of the interiors was a wonderful palace which is residence to the Maharaja of Jodhpur. It was built in a similar style to Viceroy’s House around the same period. That palace is still home to the Maharaja in one of the wings but the rest is a very, very fancy hotel. We had to work with the hotel in order to shoot our movie. There were certain days when we were only allowed in certain parts of the hotel but we made it work.
Our third location was the ruins of a big fort in Rajasthan that had been built a thousand years ago. That’s where we built our big refugee camp.
Matt: You’re working here with one of my favourite composers – A.R. Rahman whose credits include Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. Do you just throw the music completely over to him or did you have something in mind to guide him from the outset?
Gurinder: When I met A.R. to talk about the film, he said that he’d vowed to never work on a film about partition. I then tried to persuade him otherwise. It was a very interesting process watching him work. He saw a rough cut of the film and then he walked over to his piano and started playing a tune. I quickly turned my phone on to record it. In the end, that became one of the central themes in the film. For A.R., he has to feel very emotional about the story before can start composing. That’s what’s so wonderful about him.
Matt: Have you had the chance to screen the film in India or Pakistan yet?
Gurinder: Not officially. At the Berlin Film Festival we did have some journalists from India who saw the film. Two of them I spoke to were very complimentary because for them, they felt it was refreshing to see a film that stood back and looked at the events of 1947 from a less aggressive perspective as to what is normally shown in India and Pakistan.
Matt: Is there anything you’re working on at the moment? What will we see from you next?
Gurinder: I’ve got a pretty full slate. I’ve been very excited by the recent changes to television and long-form drama and so I’ve been working on a couple of big dramas set across India, Africa and Great Britain. I’m quite excited about that. There’s also another movie script I’ve been working on which is the closest thing to the Bend It Like Beckham world that I’ve written in the past 15 years. I felt it was time to write something again based on the British Asian community.