Exclusive Interview With Director Gurinder Chadha

Wednesday March 8, 2017

Viceroy’s House is the new critically-acclaimed movie set during the Partition of India in 1947. Director Gurinder Chadha’s epic film follows Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) as they take up residence in the Viceroy’s House. For six months, Mountbatten was charged with handing India back to its people. Chadha’s film is an upstairs-downstairs take on this dramatic period in global history. Here Chadha explains why this movie is so personal to her and why this is such a relevant story to tell today.

A Personal Story

Despite being raised in West London, the Partition of India has always been part of Gurinder Chadha’s life and she describes herself as someone who grew up “in the shadow of Partition.” Her knowledge of the Partition came principally from her paternal grandmother who lived with her when she was a young girl. “Whenever anything violent came on TV she would get very agitated and she would tell stories about her experience of the Partition. She was terribly traumatised and her trauma stayed with me.”

As a film-maker, Chadha has translated her personal experience as a Punjabi-British woman into uplifting movies, from her ground-breaking 1993 debut Bhajo On The Beach to her box-office smash Bend It Like Beckham. The Partition of India was a tragic aspect of her family background that she’d always shied away from 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. Chadha’s experiences of the programme left her with a determination to make a film about Partition:  “I decided I wanted to make a film about what I call The People’s Partition. 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.”

 

A Unique Perspective

Chadha decided to set 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, whilst interweaving the stories of the Indians downstairs:

“I tried to make the film as accessible as possible. By using the upstairs, downstairs formula I was able to access both sides of me as a British Asian - that’s an important point of view that we don’t often see on the screen. I was able to look at it from different points of view and for me the challenge was to humanise all the characters rather than villainise say, the British.”

“My aim was to find a way to tell the story of human beings who were in this situation at the time and to think about what would we have done, and how the decisions they made led to the blunder of it all. This film is unashamedly about our shared history from a British Asian perspective. I think some people will find this perspective refreshing but others might find it really frustrating.”

 

Lord Mountbatten

Lord Mountbatten was a man vilified by some but still recognised as being utterly charming, embodying a “thoroughly British sense of civility and fairness,” as Chadha puts it. In her mind, nobody better represented that quality than Hugh Bonneville, perhaps best known as the on-screen epitome of ‘upstairs’ life in the role of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, in TV hit Downton Abbey.

“He has that wonderful British quality of being terribly sympathetic while still being in charge,” says Chadha. “He really does personify that class of British person: slightly self-effacing, but very confident, and genuinely concerned about morality and fairness on how things should be.”

Another person who was pleased with this casting was Lady Pamela Mountbatten herself, who Chadha met with a few times while researching the film: “she was absolutely delighted,” says Chadha, “although she did say her father was slimmer than Hugh! She was quite overcome with the way the film brought back memories of that period of her life.”

 

A Relevant Message

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.

“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!”

 

Explore our new collection inspired by Viceroy’s House.