Director Gurinder Chadha retells history in Viceroy's House

Gurinder Chadha.
Gurinder Chadha.

Viceroy's House director Gurinder Chadha says her film looks at the British empire through the eyes of a British Asian

When film-maker Gurinder Chadha was growing up, like everyone schooled in Britain, she learnt that India and Pakistan had been split into separate states mostly because the British felt that once they pulled out of India, religious strife might erupt unless Muslims and Hindus had their own homelands.

Years later, as the maker of the popular coming-of-age comedies Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Angus, Thongs And Perfect Snogging (2008) was doing research for a documentary, she found papers contradicting that version of history.

Her findings - which have been disputed by experts - have been worked into Viceroy's House, an epic drama that covers the tumultuous months leading up to India's independence in August 1947 and the partition, which sparked a refugee crisis and communal violence. It is estimated that a million lives were lost.

The film opens tomorrow.

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She was driven to make the film because her family's history supports the reason for partition that she found, she says.

"The film is a story about the British empire told from the point of view of a British Asian. I am really being pushed to tell the story... because in school, we learnt a completely different history."

Chadha, 57, spoke to The Straits Times in Singapore in April during a press tour for the film.

"My family lost everything after partition," she says.

Her Sikh family has roots in Jhelum, a city in Punjab province that became part of the new nation of Pakistan in 1947. Her branch of the family moved to Kenya before settling in London.

Older people in her family told her that before the split, people of different faiths had lived in peace for centuries. "The Hindus had their temples, the Muslims their mosques, we had our temples. If it was Eid, Muslims gave sweets to everyone and it was the same at Diwali. Everybody had a faith and that respect for having a faith united people for thousands of years," she says.

But the mood "changed overnight" following partition, says Chadha, who co-wrote and directed the film. Her co-writers are her American husband Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini, who is British.

Something had driven a wedge between the communities. "My mother says it was like black magic," she says.

The film stars Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville as Lord Louis Mountbatten, appointed by the British government to administer the handover of power. American-British actress Gillian Anderson plays his wife, Lady Edwina.

American actor Manish Dayal is Jeet Kumar, a manservant employed by Mountbatten. In the wake of partition, Jeet must choose between family and duty.

Since its release in the United Kingdom in March, the film has received mostly positive reviews. Some experts, though, dispute the film's assertion that blame for the bloodshed should rest with certain men who were playing a larger strategic game and for whom lives in India did not matter.

Chadha believes that audiences will be able to pick up how events in India 70 years ago bear close parallels to those of today.

"British people are aware of how geopolitics works. When we started making the film, Mr Barack Obama was president, there were no Syrian refugees. The world is changed now."

•Viceroy's House opens in Singapore tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2017, with the headline 'A different take on history'. Print Edition | Subscribe