Gurinder Chadha, OBE is best known for the hit films “Bhaji on the Beach” (1993), “Bend it Like Beckham” (2002), “Bride and Prejudice” (2004), “Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging” (2008), and “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife” (2010). Most of her films explore the lives of Indians living in England. This common theme among her work showcases the trials of Indian women living in England and how they must reconcile their converging traditional and modern cultures. Although many of her films seem like simple quirky comedies about Indian women, they actually address many social and emotional issues, especially ones faced by immigrants caught between two worlds. Her latest film, the Partition drama “Viceroy’s House”, screened in Competition at this year’s Berlinale and Tara Karajica caught up with her and discussed her new work.
Why do you think the subject of Partition matters today?
Gurinder Chadha: I’ve grown up under the shadow of the Partition, because my family was originally from the foothills of the Himalayas, the Punjab, which is now Pakistan after the Partition. So, I grew up not having a homeland. Also, when I was young, my grandmother came to live with us and she was very traumatized having experienced the violence of the Partition. So, whenever we would be watching TV – an English program – if a villain came on, she would get very upset and tell us to turn it off. And, we would say: “We’re in England! It’s OK! This program is English! It’s not Muslim! It’s not Indian!”. But, I never really had the courage to talk about the subject, because it was a very sad subject. And, I’ve been taught at school that at the end of the British Raj, Mountbatten had come to India to hand India back. But, because we started fighting with each other, it was our fault that the Partition happened because Mountbatten had to stop the violence and the only way to do it was to divide the country. So, I’d always grown up believing that it was our fault, that this tragedy really happened because of us and that I didn’t have a homeland because of us. Then, I started investigating this film and saw that actually Partition happened because it was orchestrated and designed because Britain and America were trying to work out what’s going to happen after the war and with Stalin being such a big force, it became even more necessary to tell that story. So, that is a story I wanted to tell – when and how Partition happened – but, my heart was in telling a story about ordinary people. I didn’t want to just make a historical epic. I wanted to tell a story about ordinary Indians as well, about the kind of people that normally wouldn’t get to be in a historic epic, a British historic epic, so I kind of had to juggle both those things. And, ultimately, I wanted to make a film where younger people who knew nothing about this part of History would learn about it, including my children.
According to you, does this part of History have consequences today? And, if so, how?
G.C.: Yes. Well, since Partition, there have been many wars between India and Pakistan. It’s a very hostile border in terms of the military and politicians, but I feel that ordinary people don’t want that. Ordinary people are much more connected; we are connected with language, with food, with fashion… But, it serves a lot of our people to create the problems and the divisions. And, I think, when I set out to make the film, seven years ago, the world was a different place. There was no Syrian refugee crisis; there was no Brexit; there was no Donald Trump. And, in those seven years, the world has shifted enormously. So, the lessons of Partition from seventy years ago are much more resonant today. And, I hope people can look at the film and say: “OK, it was India and Pakistan in 1947, but the message for today is enormous in a timely way: anytime anybody starts dividing people, it leads to fear, intimidation, hate and death.”
When we were shooting the film, in the big scene with the refugees, I had a thousand refugees there, all dressed in period refugee costumes…
Were they real refugees?
G.C.: They were extras, but some people had been refugees. There are some shots in particular – there’s one shot of an old man coming off a lorry right at the end, it’s a very old man with a turban, and there’s a close-up of his foot, his sandal, as he comes off the truck that Aliya is on. That man was a refugee in 1947 as well as a few other people.
When we were shooting the scenes with the refugees, that morning on the news, was the day that this little Syrian boy had been found washed up on the beach and everyone was just like: “Oh my Goodness me!” because that changed a lot of people’s attitudes when it happened. We were all really upset on the set. All of a sudden, we felt like we were doing something very contemporary even if we were recreating something from seventy years ago. But, then also, when I was editing the film in London, my editor, Valerio, is Italian and he’s married to an English woman and they have children. So, we were editing the film and the next day, the Brexit result happened. My Goodness me! We were all devastated again! And, Valerio was crying because he was making a film about Partition, division, with me, and then his own life was like that of the refugees. He was thinking: “Where am I going to go overnight? What do I do?” So, it became very real for us again. And, then of course, now, while I was watching the film last night, I kept thinking some of the dialogue that Gandhi says should be heard in America. Gandhi says very eloquently that we all worship one God – there might be different ways to do it, but we worship the same God. We all eat the same way, we all drink the same way, we all cry the same way… And, when you start dividing people, it’s to divide and rule because it’s easier to rule us and get what you want if you create problems and divisions.
The great thing about a film by a woman is that you’ll always see three-dimensional women because that’s how we see the world.
This message also becomes strong with the way historical figures are portrayed in the film. That way, the audience can really understand their point of view. Do you agree with that?
G.C.: Yes, absolutely. I didn’t want to make a film where I made people villains. I think we’re beyond that. This is MY chance to talk about History, you know. In the past, the British have told History with villains. They’ve made the Indians the villains. And, they’re the rulers. This is MY chance to actually tell a different version of History and being both British and Indian, I have the real privilege of seeing different points of view all the time. So, for me, it was more interesting to make Jinnah a human, make Mountbatten more human, make Gandhi a human, and look at the actual dilemmas they were facing, but politically what their interests or agendas were and how they were different and how they ended up maneuvering to get what they wanted. Each one thought they were doing the right thing for themselves and I think that’s more interesting than taking one position and saying: “They’re the villains, look what they did to us…” Because, I think, the tragedy of Partition was, that Churchill orchestrated it, and was politically motivated to do it because of the interests, his fear of what was going to happen in Asia postwar. I think the way that it happened was a series of blunders that, had people been a bit more astute about what was going on, might have been avoided. So, I wanted to show the bigger picture and people’s hues, but I also wanted to show people that were suffering as human. I wanted to put it all on the same level.
It was very interesting with Jinnah, because many Westerners might know him from Gandhi, his is a negative portrayal. It’s quite different in your film… Can you talk about that?
G.C.: Yes, in Pakistan, he’s a hero. He’s the founder of the nation. So, why would I want to make a film about Partition where I upset all the Pakistanis in the world by making their hero a villain? It doesn’t make sense. It might appease a billion Indians, but I think it goes away from the bigger story. I think that by bringing a human touch, it’s a different way of talking politics. And, I think, perhaps, that’s what makes it more feminine – maybe it’s more of a female way of looking at things; maybe also because I’m a mother… You know, I have to try to understand when children behave badly, I have to understand why they are behaving badly and try and work out how to correct that.
Would you say that it would have been another film if it were directed by a man?
G.C.: I don’t think it’s that simple. We make one film and then we make another. But, I think that who you are comes into what you make. And, I think that there are no answers; I think there are differences. I mean, I think, I was able to make you emotional and your background is totally different to my background, but what I was able to do was appeal to the very human side of you. And, I think, that for me, is the storytelling that I’m excited by, that I’m interested in. That’s a very human storytelling. One of the films that I’d watched and was in my head when I was making this film, and to me this film is a masterpiece, was a German film, “The Lives of Others”. And, that was in the back of my head because it is a film about ordinary people living one life, someone controlling their life and someone else controlling his life and then someone else controlling his life… So there were all kinds of control and you never quite knew who was living whose life. But, you ended up being sympathetic to the man who you were supposed to vilify and hate. It’s a wonderful human complex story about healing and moving on. It could quite easily have been quite nasty about that time and about the people in power, but it wasn’t; it was very human and I loved that about that film. So, I was definitely influenced by that.
Is Partition still a subject in India? Do people talk about it? Or, do they just say: “It happened, it’s History”?
G.C.: Not a lot of people like to talk about it. It’s brushed under the carpet. The film is being released in India in Hindi as well as English and that’s a big deal for India. So, most people will learn about what actually happened for the first time watching my film because they don’t like to talk about it in India or Pakistan.
I would like to touch upon the female topic in the film – I would like to talk about the two female characters, Lady Edwina Mountbatten and Aliya, who are very strong women, from different backgrounds and different situations in life. What is your take on them?
G.C.: The great thing about a film by a woman is that you’ll always see three-dimensional women because that’s how we see the world; we see ourselves as three-dimensional; we see ourselves as complex. You know, we’re not just there to wear nice clothes and to be there for the men in the film. So, it was important for me to create these three-dimensional characters. And, I think that Edwina was very impressive in what she did in India. If you look at all her archive footage and look at the research, you’ll see that she actually spent a lot of time in refugee camps and out there with the Red Cross, trying to do something, trying to help. She was actually Jewish as well. Her mother was Jewish, so she was very empathetic to what was going on. She was more politically astute than her husband. And, he actually thinks that. I think that she gives the warnings in the film and she is constantly the one who, I think, recognizes that he didn’t necessarily do a good job and calls him on it, really, which, I think, was quite truthful. But, I think with Aliya, again, it’s quite radical to have these scenes with women like this – the workers, the ordinary people talking about themselves and how the Partition would affect them. It was always a hassle to balance the two, the politics upstairs and the human stories downstairs, you know, because some people would want more History and some people would want more emotion downstairs. So, I had to find that balance. I didn’t have a lot of time with the characters. Hopefully, you understood, you got involved in the decisions that they had to make, which came upon and were sudden, which, I think, happens when you are a refugee. Suddenly, one minute everything is OK, and the next it’s different.
It’s wonderful and interesting that you’ve brought Huma Qureshi to an international audience. Can you talk about this casting choice? Have you been following her career?
G.C.: No! When I met her, she was a young actress; she’d done a little bit of stuff and she auditioned along with a few other actresses, but her audition was wonderful. She was so earthy and so real and she looked absolutely the part for me. But, more, I just liked her face and her expressions. And, she’s since now become quite a Bollywood star – she’s been in a big movie and I’m very pleased for her, because she’s doing great in India and this will be her launch for the West.
In the film, what unites them all is that they want to get rid of Britain…
G.C.: Yes, and that’s what I hope people will feel today that India or Pakistan continuing to fight amongst each other only plays into the hands of other people. If they’re united, it’ll piss everyone off. If the whole Middle East came together and was united, it would be a massive, major force and America and Europe would be very nervous of that. But, dissention is cause for reason, division is cause for reason, we know that now. We’re seeing it around us today. So, hopefully, the film is a timely reminder to everyone to understand what fake news is. In a way, that was fake news of the time, you know. And, if we can make ordinary members of the public aware of what they read and see and be suspicious of when someone is scapegoated, what is the reason for someone to be scapegoated…
This interview was conducted at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.