Rani Juni of Sarila cries foul over distortion of facts in Gurinder Chadha’s film | brunch | feature | Hindustan Times
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Rani Juni of Sarila cries foul over distortion of facts in Gurinder Chadha’s film

Gurinder Chadha’s newest film has enraged the wife of the man who helped her script the story

brunch Updated: Aug 19, 2017 23:31 IST
Sathya Saran
Sathya Saran
Hindustan Times
Viceroy's House,Gurinder Chadha,Rani Juni of Sarila
Shefali Singh with her husband, Raja Narendra Singh (right) and son Prince Samar Singh of Sarila

In her review of the movie in The Guardian, Fatima Bhutto said the portrayal of Gandhi made her weep. The Sydney Morning Herald advised audiences to keep the salt shaker at hand. And this “fascinating, infuriating, entertaining and at times misleading film” has Shefali Singh, otherwise known as Rani Juni of Sarila, fuming!

We are talking about the recently released film Viceroy’s House, the Hindi version of which is titled Partition:1947. This is the newest film from Bend It Like Beckham (2002) director Gurinder Chadha, which is meant to be a historical film about the home of India’s last Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, the building which is now famously recognised as Rashtrapati Bhavan. But, says Rani Juni, “When you are making a historical film, you cannot ignore the details. People will think that’s how it was.”

The film is the outcome of Gurinder Chadha’s desire to make a movie about the Partition, a fact she reportedly mentioned to Prince Charles at a charity event a few years ago. Chadha approached Narendra Singh Sarila, ADC to Lord Mountbatten at the time of the Partition, reportedly on the Prince’s advice. Sarila had written a book on the Partition and the story behind it.

Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India (Getty Images)

“We were in Switzerland then, and Chadha could not find Narendra,” Juni, his wife says, recounting the events that led to the making of the film. “But my son Samar heard that Chadha was planning a film on Partition, and during her visit to Mumbai, went to meet her with a copy of the book under his arm.”

Chadha established contact with Raja Narendra and they met in London, where Chadha impressed him enough. He gave her the rights to base her film on the book. “In fact, my husband went way beyond that. He would spend hours on research, getting letters, papers, material together to send to Chadha, to add to the material in the book; working late into the nights, even when he was ill.”

(From left) Shefali Singh, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain and Raja Narendra Singh

Inside story

Sarila’s inputs were valuable to Chadha. As one of the ADCs to Lord Mountbatten, he had enjoyed an insider’s eye view of the events in the Viceroy’s house, which is what Chadha’s film was to be about. “Above all,” Juni adds, “He was very excited that many little known facts would be coming to light, and that his book was being directed by a London director.”

Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha’s newest film Viceroy’s House is meant to be a historical film about the home of India’s last Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, now famously recognised as Rashtrapati Bhavan

Sarila however, did not live to see the film. In 2011, the year he passed away, Chadha was still to get the script finalised. Chadha stayed in touch with Juni, finally meeting her in Switzerland while on her way back to London from a ski resort. Juni learnt from her that, unhappy with the version written by the BBC, Chadha was rewriting the script herself and it would soon get done.

Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson in Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House

“Chadha told me it was a love story against a historical background,” Juni says. “I had no quarrel with that.” But when almost two years went by after the script had been finalised, she wondered why it was taking so long to get on the floors. “I later came to know that Chadha was finding it tough to get actors to sign on for the lead role,” she says. “Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Grant, among the many approached, either had no dates or did not want the role. Finally, Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson were signed on.” As was Om Puri, in what would be his last film.

Crossed connections

Juni continued what her husband had begun: helping the film in her own way. It was her connections that got Chadha permission to visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan with her photographer to shoot the interiors that she could replicate in her sets of the Viceroy’s House. There were many other instances of doors that may have remained shut being opened, thanks to Juni’s help.

Rani Juni of Sarila, also known as Shefali Singh

“When the production decided to shoot in Jodhpur, I had to put in a word with the Maharaja to ease things for the unit. The production in charge had tried repeatedly, but in vain,” says Juni. On Juni’s request, Chadha got a carte blanche from the Maharaja, who even threw a dinner for the cast.

“I’m glad my husband is not alive to see Gurinder Chadha’s film. It would have given him a heart attack!” – Rani Juni of Sarila

It was in Jodhpur that Juni first realised things were really not quite right with the film. Invited to the sets to watch the shoot, she found herself disturbed by anomalies she could not help but notice. Juni had seen enough of Lord Mountbatten during her visits with her husband to Broadland, his home in Hampshire, in more recent years to know he was always impeccably fit and stood lean and tall. Unable to help herself, she asked Hugh Bonneville, at the royal dinner, how he could play Lord Mountbatten with a paunch. “Bonneville is a lovely man,” she says of that conversation. “He smiled and said, ‘I cannot be Mountbatten, let me be myself’.”

Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord and Lady Mountbatten and their daughter Lady Pamela in their red Sunbeam-Talbot on May 17, 1948.

More disturbing was the love scene that Juni watched being shot. It delineated a secret liaison between a Muslim maid and a Hindu waiter. “It was impossible,” she says, outrage singeing her voice. “The rules were very strict, and such a liaison was impossible, no interaction whatsoever was possible. There were no maids in the Viceroy’s house. There could not be a meeting, let alone a love story. I expected facts, this was fiction!”

“There were no maids in the Viceroy’s house. There could not be a meeting, let alone a love story. I expected facts, not fiction”

To be doubly sure, Juni cross -checked the facts. And she found that she was right. As upsetting was the portrayal of the servants in the Viceroy’s household. “They show bad behaviour, fighting and spitting, such things were absolutely not possible, would not have been tolerated at any level,” she says. “It is the director’s imagination, and far from reality, and that is not allowed in a historical based on a time so close to the present.”

Indignity and Ignominy

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all, Juni says, is the way the film portrayed Lord Mountbatten’s ADC. “An ADC was among the most important people in the Viceroy’s house. He controlled the house, knew every move of the Viceroy; he was someone capable enough to be his Aide.”

Oath being administered to Shri C. Rajagopalachari at the Darbar Hall of the Governor-General’s house on June 22, 1948

Juni had heard from her husband about the intensive training an ADC received to ensure he could handle everything from arranging elaborate, formal dinners, to overseeing perfect flower arrangements and table settings, to remembering every guest by name, to organising the Viceroy’s timetable or Lady Mountbatten’s day. She had seen photographs of her husband, standing beside the Viceroy, alert and ready at all times.

“The photographs I have seen of Samar who plays the part of the ADC,” she says, “show him standing far away from the Viceroy, his hands clasped behind his back like a chaprasi! It is unjust to the ADCs to project them as ridiculous. It shows the laziness and ignorance of the director about the reality of the times she is portraying. When you are making a historical, details matter. And she has not looked into details.”

Pope Saint John Paul II with Shefali Singh and Raja Narendra Singh (at the back)

Equally upsetting to her is the fact that Chadha has brought in a personal story at the centre of the film, using her grandmother’s story to vindicate her stand as a victim herself. “All of it has nothing to do with Narendra’s book or history,” Juni says.

She has not seen the film yet, and Juni is not sure whether she will watch it at all.“Chadha did not need Narendra’s book to make this film,” she says. “Though she acknowledges the book in the credits. Which is why I am glad my husband is not alive to see the film. It would have given him a heart attack.”

The writer is a senior journalist and the former editor of Femina. She has also authored several books, including a biography on filmmaker Guru Dutt

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From HT Brunch, August 13, 2017

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First Published: Aug 14, 2017 22:49 IST