By Neeraj Nanda
British Historian E. H. Carr wrote: “History means interpretation.” The 300-years of colonial history and the British rule in India has been a much written and debated subject. Director Gurinder Chadha delves into this rather contentious subject with her movie ‘Viceroy’s House’ dealing with the final months of the Empire leading to the birth of two nations- India and Pakistan. For six months in 1947, Lord Mountbatten, British India’s last Viceroy, is charged with handing India back to its people. The happenings in Viceroy’s house both political (politicians wrangling over issues) and social (within the staff) go on as the country is hit by unprecedented violence and mass migration. A love story with the young lovers caught up in the vortex of the partition drama runs parallel to these developments. The story is personal to Gurinder Chadha, whose own family was engulfed in the tragic events as the British Raj came to an end.
Gurinder Chadha, was in Melbourne to promote the movie (releasing here on 18 May 2017) and I caught up with her at the 3AW building.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: How challenging was the ‘partition’ subject as you researched the script?
A: Very challenging. Because it is also personal and a sad subject. Sad for Punjabis and Bengalis as these states were divided. But the story needed to be told. This is the shadow of it. Lots of old people who were there then. I wanted to do it before the generation is lost. So that they could feel their stories are told.
Q: Any hurdles in the scripting?
A: Yes, the biggest problem was how to show the violence. I did not want to stir up communal feelings. This was a big issue for me. I saw the archives to show the right things.
Q: How much time the scripting took?
A: It took five years.
Q: This August it will be 70 years since partition. But the issues are still the same. Religious intolerance continues.
A: Well, I feel this is what the politicians do and that is what the film shows. It’s easy to divide and rule us. It is an effective way of controlling problems between people. Focus shifts and there is a distraction from the real business of the government. Whenever anyone uses hate you can be sure they are using it to detract from real issues.
Q: The relationship between a Hindu and a Muslim runs parallel with the partition drama. What are you trying to convey?
A: I wanted the film as history as well as entertaining for the audience. I wanted to set a love story that allows you to tell those stories of the division with the emotional sets where the lovers are deciding what to do.
Q: The film mentions about those top secret documents about partition. Are you saying the British had already decided to split India?
A: Yes. But I don’t want to elaborate the documents. I encourage the people to see the movie. What I have done is to base the movie on secret British documents that go back to 1945 telling a different story what officially happened as compared to the stories normally we have been told. And it is interesting and important because it tells the partition from a British-Indian perspective. Therefore, every Indian is interested in the history and story of partition. People should go to see the movie to see what is uncovered in the end.
Q: You admit your own family’s partition experience inspired the film. There was so much tragedy and pain. How could you overcome this and give a positive message in the film?
A: It’s very hard. I didn’t watch the movie. I get upset. I came towards the end of the movie and watched it. One just has to be strong and we have to move on. Three wars have been fought between India and Pakistan. This is rooted in the partition. This movie has generated debate and people talking about it.
Q: So, the two-nation theory that Hindus and Muslims are different nations is no good.
A: There are more Muslims in India than Pakistan.
Q: A million died in the riots and millions were uprooted and became refugees. What is the message for today’s world where again millions have been crossing borders?
A: I agree. People are moved and touched by this movie because it highlights the events that happened 70 years back and is not different from what is happening today. Hope there is an impact and the refugee experience is humanized.
Q: Would you make a movie on this subject?
A: Maybe, depends on the script.
Q: Fatima Bhutto in her review says your movie is a colonial version and misrepresents historical reality. What do you say?
A: I replied to her in the Guardian. She misrepresented the film. She is a politician and sees the film as anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan. But lots of Pakistani people said she feels different from what we see. She is from an elite Pakistani family who never lost their lands etc. and nothing of theirs was touched during the partition. She has everything and never experienced what others did. A Muslim girl wrote in the Huntington Post that by attacking the film all British Asians have been attacked. It’s good the movie has created a debate. Fatima herself felt bad as a lot of people called her review bad journalism. The film she describes is not the film that most people feel it is.
This is a British-Indian film. A Pakistani would have made a different film. An Indian from India would have made a different film. A White person would have made a different film. Anyone can make a film with their own interpretation.
This movie is my interpretation as a British-Indian woman. My version of what happened. I am what I am. Indians will say differently and Pakistanis will say it differently.
Q: So, we can say this is Gurinder Chadha’s interpretation of partition?
A: Yes, it is. Of course, this is my film.
Q: The Indian Censor Board is quite strict these days and liberal in demanding cuts?
A: They have passed the movie with no cuts.
Q: Would you agree while we blame the British and the politicians for the tragedy, our own roles also need to be examined. Are we also responsible?
A: You have to answer that. I made my film. It’s for others to look at their own situation. I made it with historical facts as I see them.
Q: Tell me about your upcoming TV serial on British India?
A: I have a TV company that makes programs. We plan to make a serial on British Raj starting 1800 and build up the story of India’s first war of independence in 1857.