Historic Divide: Gurinder Chadha's 'Viceroy's House' dramatizes the monumental Partition of India

“I was very much influenced by the films of David Lean and Richard Attenborough,” says British-Punjabi writer-director Gurinder Chadha about her enthralling period epic 'Viceroy’s House,' the story of India’s independence and the birth of Pakistan, which
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“I was very much influenced by the films of David Lean and Richard Attenborough,” says British-Punjabi writer-director Gurinder Chadha about her enthralling period epic Viceroy’s House, the story of India’s independence and the birth of Pakistan, which IFC Films brings to theatres this Friday.

The evidence of such ambition is very much up on the screen, as is the talent Chadha displayed in such previous films as her auspicious 1993 debut Bhaji on the Beach, the 2002 art-house smash Bend It Like Beckham and 2004’s Bride & Prejudice.

The release coincides with the 70-year anniversary of the 1947 Partition of the British Empire’s cherished India, the ancient country with a Hindu and Sikh majority population, and creation of the new country of Muslim-majority Pakistan. The monumental undertaking to forge a new nation and allow India its independence after more than a century was accomplished according to the controversial Mountbatten Plan.

It’s not that so many extraordinary historic events are recounted here or that they exploded in 1947—so short a period of time for so much change—but that Chadha manages to capture these key moments of history in a comprehensive and entertaining way, all while enriching her sprawling story with some well-chosen personal and fictional elements. Adding to the film’s epic feel is the starry cast (“Downton Abbey”’s Hugh Bonneville, “The X-Files’” Gillian Anderson, Gosford Park’s Michael Gambon, and Manish Dayal, who starred in DreamWorks’ hit culinary drama The Hundred-Foot Journey). The film’s grandeur also owes much to Chadha’s production team and the score by Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman (two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe, four National Film Awards).

Adding to the broader historic events that dominate Viceroy’s House, Chadha weaves in a love story, inspired by her own family’s experience during that period and a fascinating, quite probable thread of what-if political intrigue surrounding the Mountbatten Plan that provides a fine mystery in the film’s third act.

Chadha, without betraying the surprise, explains how it came about. She was sitting with author Narendra Singh Sarila, a distinguished Indian diplomat who had spent 20 years as the Indian Ambassador to France, in a club in St. James and whose book served as one of her film’s sources. He told her that while researching a book about the Maharajas at the British Library in 1997, he’d happened upon two declassified “top secret” documents and other papers from 1945 and 1947 that suggested the British government was not as neutral regarding the Partition as it maintained. Other interests, including those of the U.S. and relating to oil and Russia, figure in the intrigue, as does a fleeting reference to the great Winston Churchill. In other words, says Chadha, “The film challenges the commonly held versions of history dealing with the end of the British Empire in India and the alleged British neutrality in the matter.”

Another clue to the mystery might lie at the beginning of Viceroy’s House, where a title proclaims that “History is written by the victors,” a famous quote most often attributed to Winston Churchill. Chadha reveals that she had asked Churchill authority Martin Gilbert, who authored an acclaimed thousand-plus-page biography of the iconic figure, if Churchill had indeed said this. “Martin, who was an early consultant on the film but passed away during production, said that the quote was not verifiable as Churchill’s but gave me another quote of his that I like but didn’t put in the film: ‘History will be kind to me because I will write it.’”

Viceroy’s Househas Lord Mountbatten (Bonneville) dispatched from London to the resplendent Viceroy’s House in New Delhi with his wife Edwina (Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) to serve as Britain’s last Viceroy and oversee the historic, hopefully peaceful transition under the plan that would carry his name. (Assassinated by the IRA in 1979, Mountbatten was an uncle of the current Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and the beloved great uncle of Prince Charles.)

Assisting him in this mission at the Viceroy House are General Hastings Ismay (Gambon), who favors Partition, and the seemingly inept official Cyril Radcliffe (veteran actor Simon Callow), overwhelmed with his responsibility to define the India-Pakistan boundary that must hurriedly be established. Other important real-life characters here are Indian leaders Mahatma Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) and Nehru (Tanveer Chani), who opposed dividing India. Nehru, as depicted here, had a special rapport with the progressive and compassionate Edwina Mountbatten, although the rumored affair between the two is not suggested. Another key figure is Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), the Muslim leader and fighter for the creation of Pakistan.

While the stakes between the conflicting British, Indian, Pakistani, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim factions were high, Chadha, who is of Sikh ancestry, maintains an admirable objectivity. “I have that thing about BBC balance,” notes Chadha, who began her career at the BBC. “One of the things I worked very hard to do was make sure that no Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs were singled out for blame for the violence of Partition. That violence seemed to me to have arisen from a series of blunders on all sides. Whilst making the film it was vitally important to me that I could sit and watch this film in London, in Delhi and Lahore and not feel uncomfortable. I needed the film’s message of reconciliation to speak to Pakistanis, to Indians, and to the British; and to speak to people’s hearts as well as their heads.”

The film’s fictional thread, the love story, was inspired by an event in Chadha’s family history and involves two fictional characters employed in the Mountbatten’s household: his Hindu valet Jeet (Dayal) and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), the Muslim translator for Mountbatten’s daughter Pamela. As their romance grows, though among difficulties, it is torn apart when India’s populations are required to choose whether to live in independent India or the new Pakistan. Aalia is forced to accompany her blind father (played by celebrated actor Om Puri) to the new country.

Chadha explains two motives for the fictional thread: “First, I was inspired by the true story in the mid-1940s of my grandmother, who had been staying with her five children in a large house in Pakistan that my grandfather, remaining in India, had built. When she was told to leave, she and the children had to flee. One child died of starvation on the road before they reached a refugee camp where my grandfather managed to find them. My grandmother and her children are part of the 14 million who became refugees overnight.”

Chadha’s fictional thread serves another purpose, what she refers to as “an ‘Upstairs/Downstairs’ vision of Partition.” “I wanted the audience to understand the impact of Partition on ordinary people and not just explore why Partition happened by focusing on the political wrangles between public figures.” Hence the negotiations upstairs between Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, and the country’s political leaders Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah, while interweaving the stories of the Indians downstairs who would be so impacted by those negotiations. And the emotionally powerful ending of Viceroy’s House seals this understanding.

But it was “the revelation [of the secret documents behind the Mountbatten Plan] that took the script in a whole new direction,” explains Chadha, “and we brought onboard a new co-writer, Moira Buffini [Jane Eyre]. Together we depicted a Mountbatten who was not the Machiavellian architect of Partition [as many have seen him] but a man caught up unwittingly in a bigger political game. She also came on for period dialogue and to give a bit of distance. because elements were my personal story.”

A third writer was Chadha’s husband Paul Mayeda Berges, with whom she has collaborated on a number of her films. “We were largely the authors of the film’s romantic strand.” And for its solid historic foundation, Viceroy’s House is also based on the books Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (Is Paris Burning?) and The Shadow of the Great Game—The Untold Story of Partition by Sarila, the expert on the secret documents behind the Partition.

The rich history and storytelling are elegantly clothed in a lavish production. It’s no surprise when Chadha says, “I was influenced by filmmakers like David Lean and Richard Attenborough and their celebrated works like Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Cry Freedom, A Passage To India.”

Yet, while the scale of the film looks massive and with costs to match, Chadha belies the notion of a huge budget, in spite of some big, chaotic crowd and massive migration scenes and the many palatial interiors. Considering all that, she maintains the film was made on “a shoestring, as we essentially used one set for the interiors, filming eight weeks in Jodhpur.”

She secured for Viceroy's House unprecedented access to the real Viceroy's House, now Rashtrapati Bhawan, the residence of India's President. Says Chadha, “I’m sure that when it was completed in 1929, no one could have imagined that in less than 20 years it would become the home of the first President of India and it remains the largest residence of any head of state anywhere in the world!” Turning on some “Mountbatten-style charm,” as she puts it, she was able to convince the President and Prime Minister to let her shoot some exterior scenes and also convince the Taj Hotel Group to allow access at its seven-star hotel, the Umaid Bawan Palace, even as one wing serves as the home of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. The hotel was ideal for her and her production designer Lawrence Dorman, because it gave them both "that amazing sumptuous palatial look, but at the same time we had the staff quarters.” Adding to the film’s grand scope is the considerable amount of archival material of the period, including much that she cleverly recreated but seamlessly flows with the rest.

Asked what might have been the most grueling challenge in directing so grand a production, Chadha responds, “It was trying to convey to audiences so complex a period and piece of history in a straightforward, entertaining way.” She says that what really put her production into motion was twofold: “the wonderful cast and me, because when I became a mother, it gave me the courage I needed to tell this story.”

And once again, showing that motherhood is the mother of much invention and creativity.