Director Gurinder Chadha on the inspiration behind historical drama Viceroy’s House

Gurinder Chadha tells us how the trauma of India’s partition still runs through generations of Indian and Pakistani families today.

British film director Gurinder Chadha on the set of Viceroy’s House, which navigates the history, politics and conflict of the partition of India in 1947. It portrays the last days of the British Raj in the household of the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, played by Hugh Bonneville. Courtesy Appurva Shah / BLU Studios / Gulf Film
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Viceroy's House, which had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival last month, tells the story of the Mountbatten Plan and the partition of India in 1947.

It also marks a shift for director Gurinder Chadha to serious drama from the light culture-clash comedies with which she made her name, including Baji on the Beach (1993), Bend it Like ­Beckham (2002) and Bride and Prejudice (2004).

To make the film, Chadha had to face some personal demons.

“I grew up in the shadow of ­partition,” she says. “I was born in Nairobi, in East Africa, which is also part of the British Empire.

“As a small child, we moved to England. Growing up when people would say, ‘Go back to where you came from’ it was confusing to me because my homeland was now in another country.”

One million people died in the violence as the British withdrew from India after centuries of rule. Chadha’s ancestors were among the 14 million people who became refugees as a result of the partition. The house her grandfather built, once part of British India, was now inside the newly-created Islamic state of Pakistan.

As a result the Chadhas were displaced. The trauma they experienced was so great that even though Chadha was not born until 1960, she felt the pain of her ancestors as she grew up. She says she would not even refer to the new country as Pakistan, preferring to say her grandparent’s former home was located in “pre-partition India”.

This all changed in 2005, when she took part in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? programme, which explores the family trees of celebrities. "I went to my ancestral home for the first time," she says. "When I got to my grandparent's village I was so well-received – and in my [family's] former home there were now five families who had been refugees living there.

“Everyone welcomed me with so much love and I saw the situation from different perspectives. It was then I realised I wanted to do a film about those who suffered because of partition.”

Chadha decided the best way to tell the story of partition, both the political decision-making and the effect it had on ordinary people, was to make an Upstairs, ­Downstairs-style drama set at the Viceroy's House, the British Raj's seat of government in Delhi.

The drama shows the ­negotiations taking place ­upstairs between Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, and the country’s political leaders: ­Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma ­Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Downstairs we see the lives of ordinary working people who share their hopes and fears about a future under self-rule.

The story mixes the experiences of Chadha's family with details from two books, Freedom at Midnight, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, and The Shadow Of the Great Game: The Untold Story Of India's Partition, by Narendra Singh Sarila.

One of the most popular television dramas of recent years has been Downton Abbey, which was based around a similar Upstairs, Downstairs setting.

The fact that Hugh Bonneville, who starred as the Earl of ­Grantham in Downton Abbey, plays Lord Mountbatten in ­Viceroy's House, only reinforces the ­comparisons.

"Going from playing an Earl in Downton Abbey to a viscount here really shows the breadth of my acting," Bonneville quips.

The film portrays Mountbatten as a charming man but not a very astute politician. He was viewed as a good choice of viceroy because those with knowledge of the dark political arts could exploit his lack of nous.

His wife, Edwina, is played by X-Files star Gillian Anderson. She did not know much about the history of partition but became fascinated by the political manoeuvring of the time.

“They were being asked to serve but were so out of their depth in this ridiculously opulent house, with 500 servants, in the middle of what would soon become one of the greatest atrocities,” ­Anderson says.

The film is also about what Chadha calls “the people’s ­partition”. We see divides open and grow through the eyes of Jeet, played by Manish Dayal, who is in love with Aalia, played by Huma Qureshi. Their differing religious beliefs mean they cannot be together as the tumultuous times dictate family duty comes first.

“My character represents a very relatable idea of youth and what it means to be young and idealistic,” Dayal says of Jeet. “He is the kind of guy that doesn’t want to accept what is happening around him and is hopeful all these things will pass.”

Delhi-born Qureshi notes that this is a story that still has a great resonance and effect on the lives of ordinary people in the Punjab and beyond.

“Partition is something, as an Indian or a Pakistani, that affects everyone deeply,” she says. “Everyone has a back-story of a family member or property they lost. Even now in the relationship between the countries no reference can be made without recalling partition.” Chadha, who started out making documentaries for the BBC, says the overriding concern in telling this story was to be fair to all concerned.

“It was important that we made this film and held some of the establishment accountable,” she says. “I wanted to make a film where I would feel comfortable sitting with audiences in Delhi, Lahore or London.”

•Viceroy’s House is in cinemas from Thursday (March 9)

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