on “Viceroy’s House,” the Partiality of Historical Films, and “Bend It Like Beckham
”“Viceroy’s House”Gurinder Chadha
is a writer, director, and producer known for films like “Bend It Like Beckham
,” “Bride & Prejudice,” and “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife.” Her newest movie, “Viceroy’s House,” is set in India during Partition. The movie follows the lives of the last Viceroy of India (Hugh Bonneville
) and his family (Gillian Anderson
, Lily Travers
), as well the Indian citizens who work for them (Manish Dayal
, Huma Qureishi, Om Puri
We recently spoke to Chadha about “Viceroy’s House,” why the film feels so personal to her, and the uphill battle she faced as she tried to secure funding for “Bend It Like Beckham
“Viceroy’s House” premiered in the UK in March. It hits U.S. theaters this Friday, September 1.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Kaidia Pickels.
W&H: The story of “Viceroy’s House” is your personal history. It seems like you’ve been gearing up to this.
Gc: Yeah, it’s a big, sumptuous, British costume drama, which I’ve never done before. It’s quite a challenge. It took a lot of courage to actually go for it, because it’s about such a tumultuous period in our history, and also I’m challenging the British Empire and its version of history. I was a bit intimidated, obviously, because that’s 200 years of British rule.
I think I had to tell the story because it was my personal story, and I had come across evidence that showed that the history that I’d been taught in school — the British Empire’s version of Indian independence — was wrong. I closed my eyes and just went for it. I think having children and being a mother made me feel, like, “You’ve got to go for it and tell your story.”
As women, we don’t get to tell those kind of big, epic stories. A million people died during the partition of India and Indian independence and 14 million people became refugees overnight, but most people in the world don’t even know that that happened. I think that what’s really important is to stress how being a woman and being a mother, as a director, really influenced how I chose to tell that story.
W&H: Can you elaborate on that?
Gc: So, for example, it was a very violent period. Normally people who know about partition talk about the violence a lot, and what happened to ordinary people — neighbors turning on neighbors, a lot of fights between Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs. I went to investigate this and found that a lot of it was not the case — it was instigated violence. It was militia, it was organized. It was men leaving the army and keeping their weapons, and using them.
I didn’t want to recreate scenes and spend thousands of dollars to show Muslims killing Hindus and vice versa. I chose a way to tell the story using archival footage, and sometimes I recreated scenes with my actors that looked like archival footage. I considered an empathetic approach to violence as opposed to glorifying the violence.
W&H: Which is what we probably wouldn’t have seen from a male director.
Gc: I think so, I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent sure but I think it would’ve been an easy thing to show rioting and people killing each other in a film about partition, but it was a conscious decision on my part to not do that. What I’m interested in now is the response of women to the film. Women will respond often quite differently to men in that women just understand it, and understand the emotional choices that I’ve made in telling the story, whereas often men will want to get caught up in and challenge the historical minutiae. Women, they sort of get it.
W&H: Meanwhile, most movies about historical details take license with them.
Gc: Well, you have to, otherwise you’d make a documentary. History is so partial! How I interpret my history is different to you. As a British person, I’m sitting here in the U.S., which is a former colony. Americans were the “bad guys” and the Brits should’ve had America — that just sounds so ludicrous now, but I’m sure there are people in Britain who think like that.
In India, in 1857, you had a lot of soldiers who mutinied. In British history books it’s called the “Great Indian Mutiny of 1857.” In Indian history books it’s called the “First War of Independence.”
W&H: This feels like a much bigger movie for you.
Gc: Yes, it’s a bigger budget, it’s epic in its scope, and also it’s very resonant with today, even though it’s set 70 years ago. It’s talking about how politicians use hate in order to divide us and get what they need and want. That has tremendous lessons for today.
When we started writing the film, the world was a different place. Barack Obama
was the U.S. president, there was no Brexit, and there was no Syrian refugee crisis. During the writing and the making of the film, the world really changed. That has really affected how I’ve told the story.
W&H: It took you and Paul [Mayeda Berges] about a decade to get the film written, and then you brought in Moira [Buffini]. Why did you bring in a third voice?
Gc: There came a point where I felt that I was very close to the story, and so I appreciated Moira’s distance. She was able to come in and say, “I know why this is emotionally important, so let’s look at the scene like this,” or “I believe this, but I don’t believe this.” Also, in terms of dialogue, I’ve never really written period dialogue before. I’ve got an ear for it from what I’ve seen, but she was very good at some of the dialogue as well.
W&H: In India, the film is called “Partition 1947,” but Pakistan has banned the movie.
Gc: The film is also released in English in India as “Viceroy’s House.” I made the film as “Viceroy’s House,” and that’s the film that’s being seen around the world. However, when the Indian distributors saw the film, they felt very strongly that it had a much bigger audience in India than the English version would reach, so they wanted to dub it in Hindi. They’d actually done that before, “Bend It Like Beckham
” was dubbed in Hindi as well, as was “Bride & Prejudice.” There was a history of my movies being dubbed because they feature Indians, and they feel like an Indian audience will prefer the Hindi version.
It’s interesting because it’s about the audiences. What’s been interesting about India is that some people just don’t want to go there, because Partition is such a hard subject. Others will — one Indian external affairs minister held a screening and tweeted about the film and went on television to say, “Every Indian should watch this film.”
I was surprised that the government of Pakistan picked up on the film like it has. The ban in Pakistan was obviously a big story in India. I, for one, was saddened by the ban. However, a lot of British-Pakistanis saw the film and appreciated it in Britain and I dare say here in America, too, I’m glad that American-Pakistanis have the opportunity to see the film.
It’s all about history. I talk about history from a British, female, Indian perspective, and I make it very clear that this is my perspective of history. Obviously in Pakistan they don’t want to hear what I have to say about how my family suffered for the birth of their country. They’ve spent 70 years building their own version of how their country came to be, and they don’t really want to dwell on the plight of my family. I understand it, I’m not cross about it.
It’s a funny thing. Maybe it’s because I’m a mom, but if anybody criticizes the film, I just say “What are you gonna do?” It’s history — it’s my version. People aren’t used to people like me making big statements about the world and what happened, the geopolitics of what happened then and how it’s resonating today in that area of the world.
I’m sure a lot of it is also because I’m a woman — “how dare she.” I feel quite powerful, because I got to tell my story.
W&H: America is a country where it is opening that doesn’t have a relationship to the occurrences in the film. What are your thoughts on American audiences?
Gc: Well, you say that it doesn’t have a relationship, but when you see the film, you’ll realize that America did have a relationship, because it was the beginning of the Cold War. The top-secret documents that are featured in the film come from a book that part of the story is based on. The author of that book spent a lot of time at the American archives in Washington, looking at the letters between President Roosevelt
and Winston Churchill
discussing India and the future of Asia, and what would happen if Britain handed India back.
America was very vociferous during the war toward Churchill
, saying “You’ve got to give India her independence.” The Japanese had taken southeast Asia at that point, and Roosevelt and the Americans said, “If you don’t commit to giving India her independence, you’re asking them to open their arms out to the Japanese,” and everyone was afraid of that. Also, the Allies needed their troops. A deal was struck during the war that would grant India independence after the war, so India became part of the Allied forces.
However, in 1945, after the war, there was a panic. The thought was, “If we hand India back, what’s going to happen to us in Asia?” Of course, the Soviets were expanding. So America was involved in some ways!
W&H: You recently told me a story about how “Bend It Like Beckham
” almost didn’t get funding. Can you tell that story again?
Gc: Every film I’ve made, I’ve always had to fight for it. Every time I choose to make a film that has Indians in it, or people of color — particularly women — suddenly, everyone goes, “Uh, it ain’t commercial. It’s niche.” Even though I’ve proved it financially, you know?
I’d been working on the “Bend It Like Beckham
” script for about three years, and loads of people had passed on it: BBC, Channel 4
, all the usual distributors. Everyone said, “Oh, it’s too niche. No one’s going to want to go and see a film about an Indian girl who plays football.” I was getting more and more agitated about it because I’d thought this was really going to work. There was something in this film that made me think, “Oh my god, there’s something here that’s going to work.” I was really dejected. I was almost going to give up, actually, but I’d submitted it to the UK Film Council
, who were giving grants to British filmmakers.
I was waiting to hear the results, and someone who was on this panel had told me that they’re going to reject it because a reader wrote in a report that they should pass on the film because “we’re never going to find a girl who can bend it like David Beckham
.” I just thought, what does this guy think, that Harrison Ford
actually jumps out of helicopters? I was absolutely furious.
I called the new head of the new council at that time, John Woodward
. I said, “This is outrageous! How dare this guy say this, and how dare you all listen! I’m fed up with you all putting me on panels to do with diversity and filmmaking, and having me bleating on about how hard it is for me as an Indian woman to make films and here I am with a project that I think is really commercial and you’re not supporting me!” John told me to calm down and come meet with him and talk about it. He said “Yes, that is a very stupid thing for that guy to say, but hold on a minute. You are one of our few female filmmakers of color, and we need to support you. Here’s what you’ve got to do.” In that reader’s report there were a couple of other script points. John asked me to take care of those, and he said he’d put the project through in the next round when he’s took over.
I said, “Fuck that, I don’t believe you. What are these notes?” I got the notes, went home on a Friday, rewrote those particular scenes, and on Monday morning, I handed the script back to John. That committee was meeting that week. He took my script, he went down to that committee, and he said, “I don’t care what you fun, but you have to fund this one. We have to support her.” They gave me a green light, I got a million pounds, and then everyone else started coming in because I had some money. That’s how “Bend It Like Beckham
” got made.
on “Viceroy’s House,” the Partiality of Historical Films, and “Bend It Like Beckham
… was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.