Conversations With Women in Film… Gurinder Chadha
On Wednesday 1st March we teamed up with the Barbican and London Film School for the latest event in our Conversations With Women in Film series. This was a particularly special one for WFTV as we had the opportunity to screen the latest film by our patron, Gurinder Chadha – Viceroy’s House. Afterwards, WFTV CEO Kate Kinninmont, MBE spoke to Gurinder about her career and telling her own history on film…
K: Could you tell us a bit about the research involved in this film? I know you started originally as a television journalist before you moved into drama and I can see that your journalistic drive runs through this film with at least some new facts that most of us don’t know about.
G: Well my first job was reading the travel and weather news on BBC Radio WM, so that was my journalistic start, but growing up in London I’d, like a lot of people, grown up under the shadow of partition because as a child I never had an ancestral homeland. I was very happy in London; obviously, I came here when I was a baby with my parents so I’d not known anything else but other people would talk about their homelands or their villages, but mine had become this different country called Pakistan, and India and Pakistan had been at war: there have been three wars since partition. So it was a sort of negative space for me, and then about 10 years ago I did an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, and I ended up going to my ancestral homeland for the first time and you can see in that programme, you know, that I’m actually quite reticent about going to Pakistan initially and I say in the programme that… well I’m quite belligerent and I say that I refuse to call this, where I am, Pakistan because to me it’s pre-partitioned India and that’s how it relates to me.
So that’s how I start and then, in the programme, I get there to the town where my grandfather had built a big house, and everybody came out and said ‘Welcome, welcome, you’re our daughter, we’re so happy you’ve come’. They threw flower petals at me, they gave me a shawl and they said, ‘we’ll help you, whatever you need’. They took me to my grandfather’s house and there in that house which my grandmother had left in 1947 with her five children, was a whole bunch of other families who themselves had been refugees from India. So, it was at that moment that the reality of partition hit home for me, and the fact that, actually, ordinary people suffered tremendously. We sort of know that, but it was just the way that they were saying, ‘I’m Indian like you, I was from Jalandhar or I was from Ludhiana, we’re Indian like you too’. It was just ordinary people juxtaposed against the nationalistic politics of the two countries, you know, that really touched me. It was at that point that I said I wanted to do something about partition, about how it affected ordinary people.
“Twenty-five years ago I made Bhaji on the Beach and I was the first Asian woman to make a feature film in Britain, and 25 years later I’m still the only Asian woman making feature films in Britain.”
K: Prince Charles had a hand in this, didn’t he?
G: A small hand [laughter]. No, he did. What happened actually was we had the rights to a book, Freedom at Midnight, by Larry Collins, Dominique Lapierre and we were working on an Upstairs, Downstairs story with that book. Whilst we were working on the script I was at a reception in Clarence House and I spoke to Prince Charles and I said I’m working on a film about your uncle. He was immediately interested in the text. He said, ‘What’s your source? What’s your information?’ I said, very proudly, Freedom at Midnight because that told the story that most of us were familiar with, that the British wanted to hand India back and Mountbatten went out to hand India back, but at that particular time we all started fighting and so Mountbatten had no choice but to divide the country. So that was the history I’d always grown up with and that’s what I told the Prince. Then he said, ‘I think you need to look at some other sources.’ He mentioned Narendra Singh Sarila’s book, Shadow of the Great Game, and he mentioned a couple of other things too.
Then the next day we went to five book shops and found Shadow of the Great Game, and I was going to India the day after for work, and I arrived in India and as soon as I got to the hotel I got a call from someone who said, ‘Look my son, his roommate at school wants to be an actor, will you meet him?’ I said, ‘No, no, no I can’t do that.’ I avoided it, and avoided it and said, ‘No, no, no I’m too busy.’ Then this young chap left a message and said ‘it’s really hard for people like me to meet people like you, I’m here in the lobby, I’ll stay here and when you have five minutes please come and see me’.
K: This is the story of your life, Gurinder!
G: Yeah, and I felt like a complete bitch at that point. So, I said, ‘OK, I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming’. So, I went down, this was on my last day, I went down and he came over and I said, ‘So what kind of acting have you been doing and what do you want to do?’ He said, ‘I am an actor, I do theatre but my father has written a book on partition and I really want to give you the book.’ It was the same book! Shadow of the Great Game – the Untold Story of India’s Partition. So within three days, you know, Prince Charles told me about it, then this boy and then by the sixth day, the weekend, I was back in London in a club in St James’s with his father, Narendra, talking about all his research and his findings. So, there’ve been quite a lot of coincidences in this story coming to light. There are other forces around, of course. I was quite intimidated by the complexity: I started looking at documents and finding letters between Jinnah and Churchill which showed that they had a sort of coded relationship. In one of the letters Churchill replies to Jinnah and says, ‘Thank you for your invitation for lunch at Claridges, I have to decline, I don’t think we should be seen in public anymore. In future please write to me under the pseudonym at this address and give me a pseudonym for you.’
I realised that I was going to be taking on the British Empire version of the last days of the Raj but also the Indian national position on the birth of independence, and also the Pakistan national narrative on the birth of Pakistan. So, I was at risk of upsetting millions of people in Britain, in India and in Pakistan. Everybody! I was aware of that as I was going through the process and there were times when I thought, ‘Oh I don’t know if I can do this because it’s too emotional a subject for too many people.’ But every time I did that something happened to bring me back. I would walk away and then I would get a call from Narendra and he’d say, ‘I’ve found this, you need to see it.’ Or something else would happen and so the story really has had its own momentum. Even now it’s coming out on the 70th anniversary of Independnce. We started working on the film seven years ago, and every film maker wants their film to come out as soon as possible but it got delayed, for whatever reason, and now this is the year where India and Pakistan and Britain are all talking about the Raj.
“When we get the opportunity to express ourselves and tell our stories, the starting point for me is not a small group of people who might already know the subject. For me it has to be the whole world.”
K: Why make a drama? A lesser person could have made a TV documentary on that. You chose to make this huge, enormous, epic, gorgeously shot, beautifully acted, incredible film.
G: Well my starting point is always: ‘because I’m the only one’. I mean 25 years ago I made Bhaji on the Beach and I was the first Asian woman to make a feature film in Britain, and 25 years later I’m still the only Asian woman making feature films in Britain.
G: Of course, that’s more indicative of how hard it is to make films in this country, but also I feel, when we get the opportunity to express ourselves and tell our stories, the starting point for me is not a small group of people who might already know the subject. For me it has to be the whole world. My starting point is: how can I tell this story so that everybody in Britain, in India, in Pakistan, in China, in the US, you know, in Hong Kong, every country will be able to access the story. I always come from that position so I didn’t make a very detailed historical film, I made one that people understood around the world as a genre that’s very British, which is the big, lush, British costume drama. Also, I grew up with the films of Richard Attenborough. Ghandi was 35 years ago, that was the last British film made on this subject, and also David Lean, I was a big fan of David Lean.
K: You can see that in this film.
G: Yes. Those are the films that influenced me most really and so I thought this is my opportunity to do something like that, but from a British Asian perspective. And in choosing the Upstairs, Downstairs format I was able to follow the important people that most people would have wanted to tell the story through, but at the same time could focus on their servants and tell the story of ordinary people like my grandmother.
K: You’ve assembled a fantastic cast.
G: Everybody has a link, really, with the story or with India. With Gillian Armstrong, I had sent Gillian the script because I thought she looked like Edwina in many ways and she’s a fantastic actress, I always wanted to work with her. She called me a couple of days later and said ‘This is great, I want to do this.’ I said ‘Fabulous, what do you think of the ending? What do you think of the twists?’ She said, ‘Oh, I haven’t read that far.’ I was like, ‘oh’, and she’d only read 20 pages and…
K: That did it!
G: …she said, I really want to do it. So that was important. Hugh Bonneville, you know, we started working on the script before Downton Abbey and now that’s come and gone, you know, but he’s known all over the world so that’s a plus point.
K: He’s brilliant in this, both of them are really terrific in it and they’re both quite different from most of the parts we’ve seen them in before.
G: Hugh also does a lot of charity work in India with Water Aid, so he had that link as well. In fact, when we were shooting we would do some days with him and then he would go off to do his charity stuff and come back. And we had Om Puri, of course. Om had been in Ghandi 35 years ago and so when he was sent this script he was over the moon that this was that story that he’d been in, but from a different perspective. So, he immediately came on board. It’s a very multi-national cast, you know, Manish Dayal is from the US. I saw him in The Hundred-Foot Journey and thought he was a very empathetic character. He has a very broad US accent but no one would realise that when they see the film. Huma Qureshi is an Indian Muslim actress who’s on the rise in India and she did a blinding audition, really great audition so that’s why I went with her. Then the Sikh guy, Duleep, he’s one of my new discoveries. Jaz Deoi his name is, he’s a young boy from Southall who actually lives in the road right next to where I grew up. This was his first movie and I think that he’s going to be a big star.
K: Your locations are absolutely spectacular and everything is so busy. One minute you’re going through the market, then you’re walking through this amazing house, you’re seeing all the dusting and prepping, is that not an absolute hell of a thing to direct? How do you even start on that scale?
G: Yes, in the refugee camp we had a thousand extras and that was hard because it was hot and they would keep hiding inside the tents and sleeping. So, when we needed to do a shot all the ADs had to run around banging drums and saying, ‘Get out of the tents, get out of the tents’. The hard thing was heat, it was very hot and we had to shoot out of season in order to have the location of the Maharaja’s palace and so we were shooting September/October, and we were in Rajasthan which is a desert, you know. So, the heat was hard, but it was a very ambitious film for me so I prepped, I really, absolutely prepped. Bhaji on the Beach was my first film and I hadn’t been to film school so I winged it.
K: You did alright!
G: I was drawing on all kinds of … I don’t know what, for that film, but this one I absolutely planned everything. I had to integrate the upstairs and the downstairs, so I worked on scenes. I was very conscious that we had to convey an awful lot of background of Indian history and British Raj history, but also what each of the leaders wanted right then, so there’s a lot of talking stuff, exposition in a way, that we had to make come alive. For example, in Mountbatten’s scene with Jinnah, it was originally much longer but we had to shorten it because it was just so ‘talky’. I came up with little ideas like when the two men are talking, Mountbatten and Jinnah, there’s a bit where he first talks of Pakistan and then we view the conversation through the mirror as the two servants are laying out the tea and the cakes.
I was sad because in the frame you can’t see the tea and cakes in that shot because I always like to see things like that because it really makes you realise that you’re… you know, when they’re making chocolate cakes and all that, you sort of realise that was everyday life. Yes, they had little cucumber sandwiches and everything on the table. But you see the servants, and when Jinnah says ‘Pakistan’ the Muslim servant smiles and is really happy, and the Sikh servant is really unhappy. So, you have that exchange.
K: Without dialogue.
G: Without dialogue, and then you go back to the main men, you know, the leaders. I tried as much as possible to have those moments where I would cut to somebody who might have been an extra in another film, you know, a servant who might have been an extra, but giving them emotional beats.
K: You did that very effectively by just suggesting the relationship between Lady Mountbatten and Nehru by looks, but you didn’t want to go down that route?
G: There’s a lot of people that are quite obsessed by that relationship and it’s very interesting to me that some people who’ve seen the film have said: but why didn’t she talk about the relationship, why didn’t she do the relationship? Again, that’s very interesting because for me this is a British/Asian film about my history and about our shared history and events that led to me not having a homeland, if you like. So, for me the love affair between Nehru and Edwina was really not the story. If they had an affair, fine, if they didn’t have an affair, fine, but so what really? That didn’t affect my grandmother. I paid homage to it by showing you that there was an intimacy between them, I did do that, I acknowledged that, but the next thing would have been to have them in broom cupboards or something somewhere like in that play, Drawing the Line where they would go off into little cupboards and have a quick snog and whatever. That was not the film that I wanted to make.
K: No, and it would move you away from the key points.
G: I’d be deflecting the real story of the last days of the Raj and the geopolitics. Not looking at what happened at the end of empire: that story was much bigger. It was much bigger than Edwina and Nehru and it was much bigger than the Mountbattens and, in the end, it was much bigger than Ghandi and Nehru, and Jinnah. It was really about the post-war map of the world. In 1945, partition was in the air, Palestine happened, Cyprus happened; previously Northern Ireland had happened and here was another way to partition a part of the world for Britain and America particularly, to get what they wanted out of that part of the world. That was the film I wanted to make.
Viceroy’s House is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer here.