Gurinder Chadha’s Partition: 1947 (released in the English version as Viceroy’s House) was released in India on August 18. The film, set during the six months preceding Partition, has been banned in Pakistan, reportedly over misrepresentation of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The UK-based filmmaker of Kenyan-Indian origin shot to fame with her popular 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham. Most of the films made by the 58-year-old filmmaker, such as Bhaji on the Beach (1993), and Bride and Prejudice (2004), explore the lives of Indians living in the UK.
At The Indian Express Idea Exchange, she speaks about her latest movie, and why it is different from other Partition films, relives the trauma her family went through at the time, says everything she does “has a personal connection”, and explains why “big Hindi movies” don’t do well in the West.
Alaka Sahani: Your movie Viceroy’s House was also released in India as Partition: 1947 in Hindi. How has the experience been?
I was more interested in hearing responses from India, to hear what Indians had to say about the movie versus what they said in the UK or Germany or South Africa or Australia. It has been interpreted by different people in different ways. One of the things that is gratifying to me is people saying that the film is quite underplayed. It’s not like what you see with Hindi cinema, which is overblown emotionally because that’s the genre. But I have underplayed a lot of the drama. The Indian trailer makes it very dramatic, like a Hindi film, but when you watch the film, it’s a very different experience because it has a lot of nuance and politics is weaved in with the personal story…
With my family originally from pre-Partition India, my view is very distinct and my view as director is very distinct and my position on the subject is uniquely my own position. It’s a very personal view — it’s British, Indian, Punjabi, but it’s also as a woman and mother. It’s not often that mothers get to make films per se and then mothers very rarely get to make big historical epics.
Shaji Vikraman: Have you tried to trace your roots in Lahore?
I found out through the BBC documentary Who Do You Think You Are that my family for many centuries lived in the district of Jhelum (present-day Pakistan). I was able to discover my family history through the 1851 Census taken by the British.
Khushboo Narayan: Is there an audience for the film in Pakistan?
I am 100 per cent sure there is. Reliance is our distributing partner in South Asia and they are talking to the censors in Pakistan and trying to release the movie there. It has already been released in Bangladesh. However, a lot of British Pakistanis have seen the film and I have no doubt that it will be seen by American Pakistanis as well and it should make for an interesting debate.
Indians and Pakistanis have their own relationship which can be volatile at times, but British Indians and British Pakistanis have a different relationship, because essentially, we are all South Asians, and have gone through a similar trajectory of life in Britain. In fact, all of my father’s drinking buddies in the UK were Pakistanis because, like him, they spoke Punjabi and Urdu. There are Indians from independent India who have made friends with Pakistanis there. They would not have been able to do that back home.
Alaka Sahani: Your personal connection with the subcontinent aside, how important was it to revisit Partition?
I would not have made the film unless I had a personal connection. Everything I do has a personal connection and is connected to my family and my grandparents’ history. My grandmother used to reside in Jhelum and had five children living with her. At that time, our family had businesses in Africa and my grandfather was there. He had left his wife in Jhelum so that his kids could be schooled.
When the riots broke out, she along with her children used to sleep on the roof of the house. They did not have any weapons and so to prevent gangs from entering the house, they would boil water in a vessel every night and throw it on any person who attempted to come in.
The situation was very traumatic and people in the village were leaving and imploring my grandmother to leave as well. However, she would say: ‘Mere paas paanch bacche hain. Mein kaise ja sakti hoon? Mein sardar ka intezaar karoongi. Jab woh aayenge tab me nikloongi (I have five children. How can I go? I will wait for my husband to come and then go)’.
However, one day, an Indian Army truck came and ordered her to leave her house and she left with her kids, leaving everything behind, including the food cooking on the stove. They then took the train and went for three days without food and water. Her milk dried up and she could not feed her youngest child, who starved to death. She then reached the refugee camp at Panipat, where she stayed for 18 months and my grandfather looked all around for her in those 18 months. All of these details have made it into the film.
Pooja Pillai: There is certainly a lot of personal history in the film, but did you do any other research, through books, films, etc?
I watched everything… Garam Hava (1973 movie with Balraj Sahni in the lead) is one of the best ones. I also watched BBC documentaries and read Freedom at Midnight, which is the seminal novel to understand why India was partitioned.
We also met a lot of people, among them my uncle, Retired Admiral Kirpal Singh. He is in his 90s — he was ADC (aide-de-camp) to the first governor general of (independent) India (C Rajagopalachari). Of his many colleagues was this man who was ADC to Governor Mountbatten in 1947. He told us how vain Mountbatten was. He would place a lot of importance on his clothes, looks and medals. He truly loved pomp and splendour.
I also met Pamela Mountbatten (Mountbatten’s daughter) and we talked a lot about ordinary things such as how she felt when Mahatma Gandhiji visited her home. She was then a young woman of 18, observing a moment of great change. Our research involved a lot of personal characters and talking to and engaging with them to understand their stories and perspective.
Khushboo Narayan: How did you go about scripting the story?
Two years into writing the script, I wanted to do an Upstairs Downstairs version, because I had a limited budget, but my aspirations were to meet the sophistication and authenticity of the movie Gandhi, which was the last British film on Partition or Independence. I had never made a period film and I was comfortable with the Upstairs Downstairs genre (of telling stories of both people in power and the proletariat).
We worked through budget constraints and kept the focus on the Viceroy’s House and it became the microcosm for what went on in all of India. The ‘upstairs’ had important people, the ones who dictated the politics such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord Mountbatten and M A Jinnah. Downstairs, we have characters who would be ordinary persons working at the house, who would hear parts of the negotiations and relay it to their fellow workers.
Smita Nair: Do you think Partition, like other human tragedies, will fade from memory?
What was interesting about making this film and travelling with it across the world was that so many people did not even know Partition ever happened. This was shocking. Even in Britain, the British audience were like, ‘This happened? We just thought we left nicely’. In Australia and New Zealand too, people had no idea. Even our younger generation had no idea. Now part of this, I think, is because it is such a traumatic subject people do not want to talk about it.
Suddenly that generation who was a part of it does not want to talk about it because of the terrible things they saw. And then their children do not want to talk about it because that trauma is still there. So I think that probably the third, fourth, fifth generation will want to talk about it.
Alaka Sahani: What has been your experience with the Indian audience or the Asian audience in the UK?
Both have been the same. They have been moved and touched.
Tabassum Barnagrwala: The documentation of history in Indian archives will be very different from how the British have archived it. So how difficult was it not to get carried away with one side of the story?
What happens here or in Pakistan is that people often have one side (of the story) because it plays into the nationalist identity. Being bicultural, British and Indian, I have a different approach to nationalism. I am much more inclusive of other identities, other political situations. I am able to politically and culturally see the world from many different perspectives and not one. So one of the hardest things I endeavoured was to be incredibly balanced and show what each leader’s agenda was. Everybody had something they were trying to do. The action in the film takes place in the last six months before India’s Independence — from March 1947 to August 1947. At that point, Gandhiji had been sidelined.
Nehru and the Congress had a different vision for India. Gandhiji wanted India to be made of the small villages; Nehru wanted India to take its place in the world of industry and big business. So these two were at complete loggerheads and it is not something that people talk about here. So we show that (in the movie) and I think that it was important for me that people were able to watch the film in India, Britain and Pakistan and not be offended. So, I made it a very humane film. That is why I talk about it from the perspective of a mother. Because as mothers, we do not bring up our children to be racists or prejudiced. If our child says something wrong to someone, we chastise them.
Tabassum Barnagrwala: Your film is being compared to Deepa Mehta’s 1947: Earth. What do you think about it?
I don’t think it is compared. What I think is that there are other films made on Partition like Earth. Then there is Veer-Zaara, which is also a Partition film, and Gadar. So, I think those are all very Indian films, if you know what I mean. They are great films but they have very a different take on Partition from mine.
Alaka Sahani: Both 1947: Earth and Partition:1947 share the same music composer — A R Rahman.
Deepa Mehta uses his music from the film Bombay. The underscore is from Bombay. I have worked with Rahman on some projects. I wanted to have his particular style, which is very spiritual and full of empathy as I was making a film which is empathetic to all those who have suffered.
Mayura Janwalkar: There is compelling literature in India on Partition. Do you think celluloid has done justice to this episode and if yes, what movies come to your mind?
I think my film has done that. This film gives the reason why Partition happened.
Shaji Vikraman: The movie comes at a time when everywhere, even in Britain, people are looking inwards. What are your thoughts on that?
I disagree with you. Some are looking inwards and there’s a huge wave of people looking outwards. You have to only look at the UK election results recently. Prime Minister Theresa May called the election thinking she would win hands down because the Labour Party was a complete mess and no one liked Jeremy Corbyn. She ended up making the wrong move because so many young people came out and supported Corbyn and this became the anti-Brexit vote.
And now in Britain, in British politics, sab hile hue hain (everyone’s shaken up). Because everyone is thinking how do we get the youth vote. They don’t want Brexit, they want an international perspective. Now, the crisis within the Conservative Party is how do we make ourselves look cool to young people who want completely different politics from what we have been offering them.
Shaji Vikraman: You made Bend it Like Beckham and since then, the international market for Indian films has boomed. But what about the quality of the content?
I think Indian art-house films do well, but big Hindi films, not yet. It will happen in time. The Indian sensibilities, market, audience… are very different from what the West wants. I was talking to the executive of a company that is trying to get a foot in India and they were asking, ‘Why does everything have to be so loud? The music is loud, the people are loud. Everything is loud’. And he said that as an American. So culturally, it’s different and movie stars have a particular standing in India. So, if you want a big star cast in a movie, there are certain things their public wants them to do. And if they do something different, they are not very supportive of that.
You’ve seen that with Tubelight. I have not seen the film, but I understand it’s a bit more art-house than the normal films that Salman Khan does. Although I did watch Akshay Kumar’s Airlift and I thought that had potential. Indians are emotional in a different way. They sing for everything — when they are happy, sad or in pain. Whereas in the West, they don’t show any emotion.
Tabassum Barnagarwala: In Bend it like Beckham, you touched on the subject of homosexuality, and how British and Indian families respond. Have you seen that change in the last 15 years?
Homosexuality has been around for centuries, it’s never going away. Homosexuality will always be there, there will be underground networks. Thank god for social media — people can make connections, they can normalise it. I think that all people, all minorities, always face certain kinds of oppression but people find their way around it.