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As long as we are able to tell our stories the way we see it, we should be all right: Viceroy’s House director Gurinder Chadha

Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha on her upcoming film on Partition, the perks and perils of being part of a diaspora and why she would love to make a film set in India.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | New Delhi |
February 26, 2017 12:00:34 am
Gurinder Chadha, Viceroy's house Gurinder Chadha became the voice of the British Asian community, giving it a recognition that was desperately needed at the time.

Amongst the sea of black and grey at the press conference room at the Berlinale Palast, Gurinder Chadha stands out in bright scarlet and a hundred-watt grin. She’s at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival with her latest film, Viceroy’s House, her very own take on Partition, starring Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, and the late Om Puri.

The born-in-Kenya, raised-in-Britain Chadha, 57, who shot to fame with Bhaji on the Beach (1993), and Bend it Like Beckham (2002), became the voice of the British Asian community, giving it a recognition that was desperately needed at the time. Both films were a pioneering window on the lives of the diaspora, and the complexities of the immigrant experience from a compassionate insider’s perspective.

Chadha’s work since, which includes Bride and Prejudice (2004), and It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (2010), has continued to explore the culture-and- race divide. She scales it up in Viceroy’s House, her most ambitious film till date, which re-creates the run-up to what she calls “the people’s Partition”, and its far-reaching impact. In this interview, she talks about her journey, being British Asian and the importance of being “multi-culti”, especially now, in the time of Brexit, Donald Trump and a furiously changing world. Edited excerpts:

In the closing credits of Viceroy’s House, you mention that your grandmother fled during the Hindu-Muslim riots from her home in what’s now Pakistan. Have you grown up hearing her stories?
The Partition is something I had lived with for a long time. I grew up with parents who were from Rawalpindi and the Jhelum. My Punjabi is Pothwari. My grandmum who came to live with us spoke it, and that’s whom I learnt it from. I had that language, but I never had a homeland. Obviously, that trauma stayed with me. This little old lady and her discourse sitting in a corner while I was leading a very English life, and hearing her talk about her life changing overnight — ‘Saanu pataa nahin kya hoya’, she used to say, ‘Un goron ne hi kuchh kitta si (I don’t know what really happened. Those foreigners must have done something).’

The other discourse in school growing up was that the Partition was ‘our fault’, was caused by ‘our’ shameful behaviour. That the British were ready to leave, that Lord Mountbatten had come to hand India back, but because we started fighting with each other, killing each other, poor old Mountbatten had no choice but to divide the country.

I think it was in 2006-07 that I did the BBC documentary, Who Do You Think You Are, and went on a massive journey to trace my roots, starting with Ealing and Southhall, onwards to Kenya and to India, and then, to my grandmother’s village in Pakistan. Initially, I was quite dismissive, quite the Indian nationalist, and, in the car (in the documentary), I say I refuse to call it Pakistan, I call it pre-Partition India.

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And then I reached the village. The experience of finding my grandmother’s house, which she had to leave with her five children and the clothes on her back, and finding five Muslim families living there, refugees themselves, was what changed something for me. It was at that moment I knew the time had come to do something on Partition, on the people’s partition.

Your work is informed by your multiple identities. How do they compute?
Well, they compute in my films (laughs). It is a fact of being British and Asian. I don’t know what it is like to be fully Indian in India. I don’t know what it is like to be fully English in England. I don’t have that luxury. People of my generation are part of a diaspora: we deal with our Indianness through the lenses of our Britishness, or our Americanness or our Africanness.


Would you say that filmmakers like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta are like you in this respect?

I think Mira and Deepa, who are my dear friends, are Indian filmmakers, because their whole life was in India before they left. Mira still has an Indian accent (laughs) and she goes to India to be nourished. It is her home. I go to Delhi, I am a tourist. I’m in a five-star hotel, I go to Karol Bagh and say, ‘Oh, too many people. Will I get sick if I drink this water?’ Mira and Deepa have outside dimensions, I am an outsider.

You made Bhaji on the Beach in 1993, and it was tough to make that film. Has it got any easier?
I was the first British Asian woman to make a feature film. Twenty-five years later, I am still the only one. It is still incredibly hard to make a film in the West with Indians in it. It’s much simpler to make a film with Hollywood or British stars. But if I want to tell our stories, it becomes an uphill task.

Did you face a lot of prejudice growing up? Did you hear shouts of ‘Paki, go home’?
Yes, of course. We were at the forefront of it all. But that helped me find my voice. And, in a way, this film is instructive in my discovering why I happen to be here. Your empire brought me here, and I choose to be empowered rather than embittered.

Lord Mountbatten comes off as a very sympathetic character in Viceroy’s House (releases in the UK next week, in August in India). It’s almost like he was unaware of the machinations of those who had Partition in mind. Is ‘white-washing’ a word you’re concerned about?
When you’re tackling a subject that arouses so much passion in so many people, not everyone’s going to like it.

What I wanted to do was to look at Partition, which impacted so many lives, including my own family’s, without villianising anyone. For me, it was interesting to see all the big figures — Nehru, Gandhi, Jinnah, Mountbatten — as human beings, making these decisions that went into shaping this catastrophe.
Nehru chose Partition as a way to freedom, Gandhi chose a vow of silence, Jinnah was in cahoots with Churchill, and, being an astute politician, got what he wanted, got his deal, and poor old Mountbatten, I show him completely out of his depth. I wanted to make a film that would satisfy the world.


So did that force you into a corner of trying to please everyone?
I’m not forced into a corner. I choose to be where I am, because what would I achieve if I were critical? It would turn people off. Partition was much bigger than Pakistan and India and Britain. It was the result of geo-political machinations, of politicians using religion to divide us for their own interests.

In today’s scenario of Brexit, will someone like you still continue to have a strong voice?
When I set out to make this film, the world was a different place. Obama was in office, there was no Syrian refugee crisis, there was no Brexit, or Trump. I could get a visa to go to Pakistan then. I can’t now.

I think partition is what happens when people manoeuver to get what they want, but actually end up playing into the hands of those in power. But what makes me hopeful is that though there may be many people on the right rising, I think there are as many people on the left rising. I think there are many people who want to hear and tell alternative stories. The battle is being played out in terms of culture, of social media, of who controls the new ideas. I think as long as we are able to tell our stories the way we see it, we should be all right.

Also read: Gurinder Chadha wants Donald Trump learn from her film, Viceroy’s House on the Partition of India

What’s next?
I’m excited at the emerging market for non-masala films in India. To make another film set in India excites me.

One last thing. I loved the desi girl character in Bend it Like Beckham, who is berated for not being able to make a perfect chapati. Did that come from your own experience? Can you make one?
(Laughs) Yes, it did. And no, I still can’t. I buy them ready made: there’s a growing business in England of shop-bought, freezer-bought chapatis. But my son can. He loves to make rotis!

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