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Director's Cut: 8 questions with top film maker Gurinder Chadha

A deep dive into filmmaking and creating powerful personal stories with 'Viceroy's House' writer and director Gurinder Chadha.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   13-10-2017
Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha
Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha

After doing Development Studies at the University of East Anglia in England, Gurinder Chadha became a journalist because she wanted to tell stories about people like her — to take characters who were often on the margins and put them at the centre of the frame. She started out working as a reporter for BBC Radio in Birmingham, and soon realised that telling your own stories in the newsroom could be a battle.

Chadha then began working in television, and did a directing scheme at the British Film Institute which led her to find her cinematic voice. Her first film, Bhaji On The Beach, received critical acclaim. The British film director of Sikh Indian origin then made Bend It Like Beckham, the breakout British hit of 2003, which launched the careers of actress Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra. The game-changing difference was that the worldwide hit was all about girls, and British Indian girls at that.

“No one imagined that a movie about a Punjabi Sikh girl who dreams of being a football player was going to be so huge,” says Gurinder Chadha, director and co-writer of both the film and the musical.

Chadha, who was awarded an OBE in 2006, has made Bride and Prejudice, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and It’s a Wonderful Afterlife. To create her lavish new period drama Viceroy’s House, Chadha looked to her country’s past to tell a searing personal story. Just before the end credits in Viceroy’s House, we learn that Chadha’s grandmother was a refu­gee whose baby girl starved to death when her family fled Pakistan after Partition.

“My uncles and aunts were small children when they were forced to flee. My father’s youngest sister never made it she starved to death,” said Chadha.

The rush to split India into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan on August 15, 1947, left millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims stranded on the wrong side of the new border. Nearly 14 million refugees fled their homes as entire villages were butchered. One million died.

Chadha, said she hopes her film will inspire viewers to look beyond the established views about why Partition happened. She has relied on Narendra Singh Sarila’s book The Shadow of the Great Game which highlights the role of British strategic interests in the region. In most historical accounts, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was sent to India to hand back power, stands vilified for the Mountbatten Plan which led to Partition. Instead Sarila’s book points a finger at Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill who held secret talks with Pakistan’s first Governor-General Muhammad Ali Jinnah to stoke the idea of a separate Muslim nation long before Partition. The vexed politics aside, the opening scenes of Viceroy’s House has all the elegant hallmarks of Downton Abbey, only set in Delhi.

A master storyteller, Chadha, 57, who is funny and enthusiastic, sat down for a freewheeling interview with BrainGain Magazine. Excerpts:

  1. How has Viceroy’s House been a personal project for you?

    I grew up under the shadow of Partition because my ancestral homeland had become this new country called Pakistan. As a child in London, I was aware I didn’t have an ancestral homeland and also that my family had lost everything and had been refugees.

    I saw the lasting psychological scars of partition on my grandmother while growing up. She had lived through those events as a girl and she had been traumatized by the things she had seen. If a villain came on TV she would become very agitated and say, ‘Turn it off!’ We’d say, ‘It’s OK, Biji, we’re in England, it’s a soap opera from Birmingham. So you know, I had a very traumatized grandmother growing up.

    It was not until 2006, when I was invited to be on the BBC show Who Do You Think You Are? that I had the chance to travel to the village outside of Jhelum, Pakistan, where my grandfather’s family once lived. When we eventually found the house, it had become home to several Muslim families. An old Pakistani man smiled and said: “This is your home, please come back.” I burst into uncontrollable tears, tears held back over years of trying to contain the injustices of history to which my family had been subject.

    It was at that moment that I vowed I would make a film that told the story of Partition. As I researched the script, I began to realize how little I knew of the bigger picture, of the global interests at play as India was divided.

    Gurinder Chadha
    Gurinder Chadha
  2. Why did you feel the need to tell this story?

    I wanted to tell the story because it was my own history and it revealed new facts about my own history. It’s not often that we get to tell our own history from our own perspective, in our own words. I am revealing a whole new reason as to why my family suffered. As a British-Indian woman, I doubt Churchill had me in mind when he said: “History is written by the victors.”

  3. How does “Viceroy’s House” challenge the history that we’ve been taught?

    Growing up in London, I was taught at school that Mountbatten came to India to hand the country back, but the Muslims wanted their separate state and we Indians started rioting. There was so much violence that Mountbatten had no choice but to divide the country so Partition was our fault. That’s the history that I had been taught and most people felt that was why Partition happened. I wanted to challenge that through Narendra Singh Sarila’s revelatory book The Shadow of the Great Game.

    Narendra, had been aide-de-camp to Mountbatten and had served in the Indian foreign service. In 1997, he was in the British Library researching a book about his family when he was approached by an Indian librarian. She had been given a box of papers to index, secret British government documents that had been declassified. Through painstaking research, Narendra saw the documents appeared to confirm a secret strategy for the protection of British interests in Asia that inexorably led to Partition. So much for it being the fault of the warring Indians, as I had been taught at school in London, or principally the fault of Mountbatten, as many believed. It was far more complex, and Sarila’s book provided me with a way into the story. There had actually been a secret plan drawn up years earlier by the British that recommended breaking off parts of India.

    After Second World War, Britain had promised to hand India back political power, but it was nervous about doing this because India was vital in terms of its strategic, military and political position in Asia given rapid Soviet expansionism. Churchill worried that if he handed India back intact as promised they were handing the whole of Asia to the Soviet Union.

    Above: Still from Gurinder Chadha's latest film 'Viceroy's House'
    Above: Still from Gurinder Chadha's latest film 'Viceroy's House'
  4. In Viceroy’s House, a far more astute Edwina Mountbatten cautions her husband from rushing headlong to divide India.

    What I wanted to show is that Edwina was more politically astute than her husband. Mountbatten was a charming sort of man, but he wasn’t a politician. He was sent to India as the king’s cousin because the Indian people would respect that, but also precisely because he was not an astute politician. He was a naval officer who was used to following orders, and in India he was out of his depth.

    Mountbatten wore his royal connections very high. He was a vain man and I wanted to show how everything for him was about his uniforms, the pomp and splendor of being a royal member, more so than in fact the politics in many ways. However, once he did realize that he had been duped or made the perfect patsy, he felt very guilty as did Edwina, which is why they stayed on after the British handover of India.

  5. You have a very sympathetic portrayal of the Mountbattens.

    If you look at the archive footage, most vicereines just stayed in the house, but all the footage of Edwina shows her outside in refugee camps. She was a patron of the Red Cross and did a lot of hospital work as well. I was quite moved by that footage. I wanted to show also that we had blamed the Mountbattens many people still blame them but actually they were made fools of, like so many other people at that time.

    Above: Still from 'Viceroy's House'
    Above: Still from 'Viceroy's House'
  6. What does your specific process look like when you are sitting down to write a script or thinking about what kind of shots you want in your film?

    The most important thing for me is can I see it? Can I see the film? If I can’t see it, then I can’t do it. When I say ‘can I see it’, generally I see one scene. I will see one moment of a story, then if I like it, I will build a whole story around that moment. That tells you what the genre is going to be, that tells you about the protagonist, gives clues about when it is set.

    Most importantly, it takes you to why you want to do it. This is always the most critical question for a filmmaker and a writer. Why do I want to tell this story? Unless you have very good reasons to tell it, don’t do it. It will be rubbish. It will be mediocre and you will just get frustrated because you will have to go though lots of drafts. Unless you care and are passionate about the story the film will just not happen. That initial impulse is critical. Every film takes at least six drafts to write. You can’t write a film in less. You have to show your script to people, get people to tell you what they don’t get. You have to get people so moved that they can’t put your script down. If they are not moved, your script is not ready. The more truthful and authentic your story is, the more universal it becomes.

  7. Do you have a go-to test for your script?

    A great test is to open your script on to any page, then take that scene out. Imagine your film without that scene. Does it still work? If it does, then that scene shouldn’t be there in your script. Every scene must count. Think of it like a house of cards. If you take one scene out, the whole movie should fall apart. So if you don’t have scenes that do that, your script is not ready.

  8. Any pointers for young filmmakers?

    Don’t fall for the prodigy myth. Too often it is believed that naturally gifted people can effortlessly do things that others will never be able to do. But talent in any field is honed through specific regimens, like persistent training and hands-on experience. Talent is not bestowed — it’s acquired.

Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London. 
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