Viceroy’s House: the history behind the film
In 1947, British colonial rule in India came to an end, and the country was split into two separate nations: India (with a majority Hindu population) and Pakistan (with a majority Muslim population). Now a major new film, Viceroy’s House, reflects on the tumultuous events of partition. We spoke to director Gurinder Chadha about the real history behind her film…
Q: Viceroy’s House revolves around the partition of India in 1947. Can you tell us a bit about your personal connection to this story?
A: My ancestral homeland is in the foothills of the Himalayas, in an area that is now in Pakistan. When India was divided and Pakistan was created in 1947, around 10 million people migrated, including my family, who had to leave as refugees.
Growing up in England, I never had that ancestral homeland. But about 10 years ago I went back there for the first time to film my episode of the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are? and I got an amazing welcome from the Pakistanis there. My grandmother had left as a refugee in 1947 with her five small children, and her former house was now home to families who had come to the area during partition. The realities of what it must have been like to be a refugee in 1947 really hit home: having to leave your home, friends - everything - overnight. That’s when I decided I wanted to make a film on partition.
Q: Why else did you think it was important to make a film about this period in history?
A: Partition was a monumental moment in Indian and Pakistani history, but lots of people around the world don’t know about it. They have no idea what happened and aren’t aware about what transpired in the last days of the Raj [the British government in India before 1947].
The East India Company first travelled to the Indian subcontinent in the early 17th century, so the relationship between Britain and India goes back 400 years. What’s shocking to me is that a lot of young people don't even know that there was a British empire in India. People need to know the real history behind the relationship between Britain and people like me.
The last big British film made on this subject was Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), and that was 35 years ago. My film is from a very specific British-Asian perspective, so it looks at all different sides of what was going on at the time. I’ve looked at all the historical evidence and interpreted what I believe happened in the last days of the Raj.
Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson as Lord and Lady Mountbatten. (Pathé)
Q: Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson star in the film as Lord and Lady Mountbatten, the outgoing viceroy of India and his wife – what role did they play in the events of 1947?
A: The historical narrative that I had always grown up with was that Mountbatten had been sent to India to hand the country back, but the Indians started fighting each other, so he had no choice but to divide the country. That was what I had always been told.
However, when I actually started researching the film, I uncovered new evidence suggesting that the plans for partition had actually already been discussed back when Churchill was prime minister (1940–45), long before Mountbatten had even been named or arrived in India.
Q: Lord Mountbatten has often been vilified for his role in partition – how and why did you decide to offer a new historical interpretation of him in Viceroy’s House?
A: Normally in India, Mountbatten is the man blamed for partition. But while he did play a role, especially in bringing the date of partition forward by 10 months [from June 1948 to August 1947], my film suggests there were also much bigger geopolitical issues at play in the postwar climate.
In 1945, Britain had announced its plans to withdraw from India, partly in return for the country supporting the Allies in the Second World War. However, in the film we suggest that Britain was very nervous of losing the ‘jewel in the empire’s crown’, because it would hugely compromise its military and strategic base in Asia, and Britain needed to find a way to secure those interests.
Hugh Bonneville as Lord Mountbatten. “While he did play a role in partition, there were also much bigger geopolitical issues at play,” says Gurinder Chadha. (Pathé)
Q: What was the atmosphere in India like at the time? How were the British viewed?
A: Gandhi had led the country to the brink of freedom. In 1942, he had launched the massive Quit India Movement, calling for widespread non-violent action against British colonial rule, which he demanded be brought to an end.
The British knew that it was time to leave, but I think that it was all planned very badly. There was a vacuum of power and different groups wanted different things – the Muslim League was calling for a separate country, whereas Gandhi wanted the country to remain unified. There was fighting, but the evidence I have suggests that a lot of that was orchestrated as part of the divide and rule policy of the British at the time.
The tragedy of partition was that, while the British were still ruling in the final days of the Raj, they ended up not really governing the country. There were riots, strikes, demonstrations and a British naval mutiny. Nobody seemed to have any plans about what might happen. People were leaving without really taking any responsibility for what they were leaving behind.
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The British just didn't seem to understand that if they were going to divide the country and create a boundary they were going to need some infrastructure in place to make it happen. So it was all a bit of a mess. I would argue that the fact that Indian lives were being lost didn't seem to matter.
Viceroy's House. (Pathé)
Q: The partition of India is an immensely complicated and politically sensitive issue – how did you go about making this accessible to a mainstream cinema audience?
A: When you’re making a historical film you have to make a choice – you can either make it as a documentary or a very detailed film that will appeal to experts or academics, or you can make a more populist movie. In my case, I wanted to make a film that could be understood by people all over the world – even people who had no idea that there ever was a partition. For me it was important to do it for the younger generation, like my children, to help them understand their history.
Viceroy’s House is in UK cinemas now.