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Monday, Sep 23, 2019

Whose heritage is it anyway? Gurinder Chadha defends her film

Mired in controversy over the storytelling in her new film 1947: Partition, Gurinder Chadha fights back

brunch Updated: Aug 25, 2017 18:07 IST
Shikha Kumar
Shikha Kumar
Hindustan Times
Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India
Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India(Getty images)

In March this year, Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto wrote a searing piece in the Guardian on her deep-seated distress after watching Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, a film she believed betrayed the inferiority complex that plagues colonised people.

She wrote: “If this servile pantomime of partition is the only story that can be told of our past, then it is a sorry testament to how intensely empire continues to run in the minds of some today.” The piece was widely shared and discussed, but Chadha was not too troubled.

Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha
Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha

In Mumbai for promotions of the Indian version of the film, 1947: Partition, she points out that journalists need to be wary, and not use one article as representative of all criticism. “One woman wrote about the film and totally misrepresented it. She’s Pakistani and from an elite family, who never suffered during the Partition by the way. They kept all their money and everything,” says Chadha.

Instead, she points to an article by a Brit-Indian Muslim writer that appeared in the Huffington Post a few days later. “She wrote about how Bhutto’s attack on me was an attack on all British Asians because I’d always stood for all of them. Suddenly, we saw a debate opening up between Pakistanis from Pakistan and British Muslims, which was great,” she adds.

Chadha’s telling of the story, however, upset many more people than Fatima Bhutto. Rani Juni of Sarila, wife of the late Narendra Singh Sarila who had been an aide de camp to Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of British India and the man who oversaw the Partition, says the film is peppered with inaccuracies.

In an earlier interview with Hindustan Times Brunch, Juni said: “I expected facts, this was fiction!”

Real to reel?

Shefali Singh with her husband, Raja Narendra Singh (right) and son Prince Samar Singh of Sarila
Shefali Singh with her husband, Raja Narendra Singh (right) and son Prince Samar Singh of Sarila

Chadha always wanted to make a film about the Partition, because it’s a significant part of her family’s history.

“Growing up, I never had my own ancestral home. My grandmother came to live with us in England when I was a girl. She was very traumatised by what she had seen in Rawalpindi. Whenever any villains would come on TV, she would get upset and make us turn it off.”

A few years ago, as part of the BBC show Who Do You Think You Are, Chadha visited the town in Pakistan where her grandfather had built a big house. “I got a very warm welcome. They threw flower petals at me, gave me a shawl and really changed the way I thought. I met many people who themselves had been refugees, and I wanted to make something about these ordinary people, like my grandmother, uncles and aunts who had suffered,” she says.

1947: Partition is centred around the events that transpired in the Viceroy’s House – where the last Viceroy Mountbatten resided – in Delhi, months before the Partition. Chadha chose the British Upstairs, Downstairs TV series format so she could fuse the stories of the politicians who lived upstairs with the ordinary people, like the cooks, cleaners and translators, who lived downstairs. “I wanted to do something big and epic like the David Lean and Merchant Ivory movies,” she says.

Juni, however, took great exception to the fact that one of the sub-plots in the film focuses on the love affair between a Muslim maid and a Hindu waiter at the Viceroy’s House.

“It was impossible,” says Juni. “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.”

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First Published: Aug 25, 2017 18:07 IST