RAJ AGAINST THE MACHINE
Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House revitalises the India-set period picture
2017 MARKS THE 70th anniversary of the end of the British Indian colonial empire, and of Partition, when that empire was split into the Dominion of Pakistan and the Union of India. Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House wasn’t originally intended as a project to mark the occasion — she started working on the project seven years ago, and says she can’t believe it’s taken this long. But its arrival is now timely both for historical reasons, and as a reflection of current events. “The partition of India was really about politicians using hate to divide people,”
the writer/director tells Empire. “Given what’s going on in the world today, it seems very timely to tell the potential tragic consequences of that kind of politicking. It feels very resonant.”
A personal project for Chadha, she says she first had the urge to tell the story when exploring her own background for the BBC’S family history series Who Do You Think You
Are?. Her intention was to make “a big, traditional, Merchant Ivory British Raj movie”, but with the crucial difference of giving equal weight to the Indian and Pakistani voices: voices like her own. The seismic events are played out in microcosm in the house itself, with the decision-making upstairs directly affecting the lives of the staff downstairs. A romance between a Muslim girl and a Hindi boy is at stake, for example, because neither knows where the Indian/ Pakistan border will be drawn or to which country they’ll belong.
The Viceroy of the title is Archibald Wavell (Simon Williams), with Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson as Lord and Lady Mountbatten, who oversaw the British withdrawal and were scapegoated for most of the consequences. Political heavyweights on the Indian and Pakistani sides, Indian independence leaders Nehru and Gandhi, and founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali
Jinnah, are played by Tanveer Ghani, Neeraj Kabi and Denzil Smith respectively, with Chadha keen to keep the portrayals fair and balanced. “Jinnah in particular is always portrayed as a villain,” she explains. “In Attenborough’s Gandhi he’s heinous, and I was at great pains to make him not that person. Everyone was acting in their own interests, as they still are.” While parts of the story cast a dark shadow, however, Chadha’s background in lighter films (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride & Prejudice) has had an effect on the film’s overall tone. “I’m generally known for making quite life-affirming movies,” she says. “I hope once I’ve taken you through the drama and the tragedy, there is some hope at the end.” All being well, that means there’s hope for the contemporary world too.
VICEROY’S HOUSE IS IN CINEMAS FROM 3 MARCH
Archie Wavell (Simon Williams) with Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville). Below: Lady Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson) joins the Lord to front a modest household get-together. Bottom: Gurinder Chadha.