When Gurinder Chadha first agreed to participate in the BBC’s popular series “Who Do You Think You Are?,” her interest was strictly personal rather than professional. The rare director of enough renown to appear on the program in her native England where celebrities often find unexpected links to other famed historical figures having made hits such as “Bend It Like Beckham,” Chadha was blown away by what she discovered in tracing her family’s history back through generations when they had resided in Jhelum, a district in Punjab that was once considered part of India, but became part of Pakistan when the country was created in 1947 to quell religious tensions between Muslims and Sikhs. Chadha’s grandfather, among others, lived not far from where the plans were made between India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence movement, and Lord Louis Mountbatten, representing England as Viceroy, to divide the land as one of the final acts of British occupation in India, and while the director’s considerable surprise made for great television, it had her thinking there might be an even better film.
She proves she wasn’t wrong with “Viceroy’s House,” a film that is both a major departure for the director as an opulent historical epic while at the same time fitting perfectly in line with her desire to long-held desire to provoke discussions about cultural differences in order to find common ground. As an Indian who grew up in England, and born in Kenya after her family migrated out of India in part because of the partition, Chadha has a rare gift for illuminating multiple perspectives, once reimagining Jane Austen’s class considerations as a study in race relations in the Bollywood-style musical “Bride & Prejudice” and bringing together a melting pot both in the kitchen and at the dinner table for Thanksgiving in the comedy “What’s Cooking?” Despite its period trappings, “Viceroy’s House” simmers just as much, creating the parallel of the meetings going on upstairs between the men in power (and the Viceroy’s influential wife, played by a fierce Gillian Anderson) and the servants who toil below who will be most affected by their decisions. The bifurcated narrative allows for the practical and theoretical discussions around literally dividing a nation to be infused with emotion, particularly as Chadha trains her lens on the star-crossed romance between Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal), a young Hindu man put in charge of the Viceroy’s care, and Aalia (Huma Quershi), a Muslim woman who is a translator for the Viceroy’s daughter.
Just as the film depicts many having grace under enormous pressure, Chadha never lets the weight of recreating such a major historical event get in the way of connecting on a human level, articulating just how the negotiations between just a handful of people could forever change the course of history and the devastating consequences of their decisions. Shortly before the film arrives in theaters following a premiere at Berlin earlier this year, Chadha spoke about the seven years it took to bring “Viceroy’s House” to the screen and giving everyone their moment in the sun, including the late, great Om Puri, who makes one of his final appearances as Aalia’s father in the film.
How did you crack this as a narrative? The upstairs/downstairs nature of it seems inspired.
We didn’t have the money to make a huge film across the whole of India, so we chose to set it in Viceroy’s house, [which] represented a microcosm of India. We were able to tell the big story upstairs of the leaders [such as] Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah, but we also got to hear the story of the people downstairs — the servants — by using this device. Also, I wanted to make a sumptuous-looking British costume drama because I hadn’t done that before and the upstairs/downstairs [structure] really dictated a Merchant Ivory “Remains of the Day”/“Maurice” [feel]. So I wanted the audience to feel they were in good hands in terms of British genre, but then of course, like so much of my work, I make you feel comfortable and then I start subverting the genre as a story somewhat.
I [also] worked very closely with Ben Smithard, my [cinematographer] and I thought one of the best ways to show epic and scale is to have a very big wide shot and then cut straight in back to closeup, and here I was telling a story about people in power, but also people who were negotiating the future for ordinary people, so in shooting those shots in that house, I would always focus on the important people [at the start] and the small people would always be in the background, on the edges of frames because that’s normally how they were as extras, and gradually, you find that I’m starting to focus on them more. There’s this a shift in perspective [where] we’re used to seeing sculptured frames that have Gillian Anderson and Hugh Bonneville and Michael Gambon [at the center] and gradually, you see that their servants also get these central frames.
One of my favorite shots is in Mountbatten’s big drawing room [when] he’s having a meeting with Jinnah and I shoot from the servant’s perspective as they’re serving cake and tea. The camera goes into the mirror, into their reflection and then it pans back to Jinnah in the distant background, and they’re talking about this new country Pakistan. One of the servants is a Sikh and the other is a Muslim, so [you see] one is happy and one is sad, and I planned little things like that, so you had constant storytelling going on with these people who normally should’ve just been extras. In my film, they were important.
The film has a light touch, but generally your films about cultural tensions have been usually comedies where those can be diffused with a joke. Was it different with a more dramatic piece?
The partition of India was a tragic event, so I knew there weren’t a lot of laughs, but it was a very personal story and a story that not many people know. It was the biggest forced migration in human history – 14 million people, including my family became refugees overnight and the sores of that has still remained 70 years on. More than that, the film has tremendous resonance with today.
A lot of the seeds of the trouble in that area are still there because of the partition of India, so this was my opportunity to tell history from my perspective. But in the seven years it took us to get the movie together, the world was a different place. Obama was president. We were all going “Yes, we can.” And over the course of making the film, the world really changed. When we were shooting the big refugee sequences [when] I had 1000 extras as refugees, on our phones, we were getting the news of the Syrian refugees, it was literally up the road from where we were shooting, so it felt very poignant that we were talking about refugees from 70 years ago and here this was going on right now. Then my editor was Italian and halfway through the editing of this very emotional film, we couldn’t believe when the Brexit vote came in. Suddenly, he felt lost because he didn’t know what was going to happen to him having an Italian passport, so he felt like he was one of the characters in the film. So [there was] a lot of resonance as we were making the film.
What was it like to have 1000 extras and presiding over the grand scope of this movie? Did you get to feel like David Lean?
Oh my God. Absolutely. [laughs] I mean, David Lean is one of my favorite British filmmakers, so I did see this as my opportunity to make an epic film on that scale, and I was definitely channeling my inner David Lean in some of those big sequences. I had some crane shots and was able to play with the big toys on a few days and as a filmmaker, that was very exciting because I’ve always made films on a relatively lower budget, but here, I definitely wanted to show my hand at making something big and sumptuous and grand.
We were [also] very, very lucky with our locations. We got to shoot in the real Viceroy’s house, which is now the home of the president of India, so we were very fortunate to shoot there, and our second location is the home of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. He lives in one of the wings and he’s given the other wing over to a hotel chain to run, so we were working around hotel guests. [laughs] It was a bit of a challenge, but it was all worth it for that amazing location and shooting in India was wonderful because we were staying in that palace, so everything was very well-organized for us and very comfortable. You know, you’d wake up, have a shower and be out on set. But it was a long time we were there and Rajastan actually is a desert, so the heat was a bit much.
You also got to work with the late Om Puri, which would seem like a dream come true. How did that come about?
Yes, Om and I have been looking for a project to work together on for quite a while actually, and when I sent him this script, he was delighted because the last British film made on this subject was 37 years ago and he was in that film – that film was “Gandhi.” So he felt that at this end of his career, he was very happy to now be in a film about the same subject, this time made by an Indian and a woman. [laughs] And it’s a British film, so for him there was a sort of circularity to that. But of course, none of us knew at the time that this was going to be his last film. He was a tremendous actor and even though he’s onscreen for maybe five or six scenes, he’s very commanding in those scenes and his impact is really felt in the story.
If you’ve been carrying this around for seven years, what’s it been like to get it out into the world?
It’s great because my mom she grew up in Rawalpindi, which is now Pakistan, and she always said, pre-partition everybody used to live side by side, everybody was very happy and when they celebrated [their holidays], they gave us sweets, and when we celebrated our festivals, we gave them sweets. Everybody celebrated Diwali together and everybody respected each other. Then she said, “In 1947, we don’t know what happened. It was like overnight the British did some black magic on us and we just didn’t work out what happened and everything fell apart.” So for me, it was wonderful now 70 years on, to say to my mom, “Mom, you were right, and this is what happened.” My mom’s 91 now, so it was wonderful watching the film with her. Subsequently, so many of my relatives and other people have been so appreciative of the fact I’ve been able to tell this story for their children and their grandchildren, so that feels good.