Gurinder Chadha, director of What’s Cooking, Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice, defines herself as a female British-Indian filmmaker – that part of her identity impacting the films she chooses to make. A majority of her films, which she writes and directs, focus on the struggle Indian women finding their place in English culture and traditional Indian homes.
Many of her films use light comedies to address these bigger social issues, but in Viceroy’s House (starring Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, and Huma Qureshi) uses the visual traditions of classic sweeping epics to tell the story of 1947’s Indian Partition from the perspective of the British politicians and Indian servants affected.
Lesley Coffin: How much did know about the history of the partition of India before writing the script writing process?
Gurinder Chadha: I knew a bit of the history because of the impact it had on my family directly. But writing the film we did considerable research. We read about 20 books on the history, we spoke with those people directly impacted, the politicians and people who worked for the politicians. What we weren’t expecting, however, was the historical information which directly challenged the British version of history, which is the version the world knew about 1942. We uncovered new evidence which challenged what we knew about this moment in history. And that got me very excited.
Lesley Coffin: The film has a lot of similarities with what we’re experiencing now with Brexit and the immigration crisis in America? When in the development and production were those in the news and influencing how you presented this living history?
Gurinder Chadha: If feels like we were in a completely different world when I started writing this film. Obama was still the president and Brexit wasn’t a thing. We hadn’t even heard much about the Syrian Refugee Crisis. During the course of making the film things really changed, and it made us realize how this part of history, although it took place 70 years ago, still has resonance in our modern world. We were shooting the refugee seen in India, with a thousand extras dressed as refugees but in period clothing. And it seemed bizarre to be filming those scenes, but up the road, in Syria, we were seeing the real news footage of people fleeing. It was sobering. And during the editing, Brexit passed and our editor, whose Italian, was very emotional while cutting the film. And suddenly he felt like one of the characters. The reality of today became very stark while making the film.
Lesley Coffin: The film is beautiful and colorful, but the stark reality of subject matter we usually see presented with a duller palette. Was it challenging to find the right visual balance for this film?
Gurinder Chadha: Growing up, there was a genre of British films which were epic. David Lean’s best known for those films like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. And I really wanted to go for that style, make the audience feel like they were watching something very British, so I could subvert the storyline and change the focus those films would have focused on. I was very careful to select specific characters in this film who wouldn’t have been presented or would have been presented differently in those epic films. So the balance you speak of was more about getting the emotional aspects of the story correct and embracing that epic appearance I wanted the film to have. As for filming the house, it had to be a microcosm of India at that time because I didn’t have the budget David Lean had when he made those films or when Richard Attenborough made Gandhi. And that allowed us to focus on both the people upstairs taking part in the political negotiations, as well as the people downstairs who worked for them like the butlers and servants.
Lesley Coffin: That upstairs-downstairs storytelling approach really is quintessentially British. You do that here as well as in Bride and Prejudice. Why do you think British filmmakers still like you use that classic structure?
Gurinder Chadha: I think Britain as a country, and as a society, ruled by class. And these upstairs-downstairs stories really consolidate that. They are a great way of talking about bigger issues, within a personal domestic story. And it shows that while people are living close to people they think are very different from themselves, we all have similar wants and needs as people. And for me, it’s a great leveler.
Lesley Coffin: This is a fictional film dealing with historical events and facts. Did you set rules for where you could and couldn’t alter the facts?
Gurinder Chadha: When you take on a historical film, you have to endeavor to get everything accurate. But within that, we have to remember that history is partial and that’s the reason we open with the quote, history is written by the victors. So you have to set out your intentions very early and very clearly. My intentions were to tell a story about my family’s history, as a British-Indian woman. So it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to take all that information, all the historical data, and filter it through my own lens. That’s when you start reducing information or conjoining information. But everything has to still be based on truth and facts. So every single element in the film is based on something we read or heard from someone we interviewed.
© Lesley Coffin (8/27/17) FF2 Media
Read FF2 Media’s review of Viceroy’s House here!
Photo: Gillian Anderson and Hugh Bonneville in Viceroy’s House (2017)
Photo Credit: Anguille Productions, BBC Films, Bend It Films