THE FIRST THING that strikes you about Gurinder Chadha is her hearty laugh. She laughs often, and the guffaws are all full-throated and belly- deep (she has no time to waste on the chuckle). She has no pretences. She’s noticeably gregarious, loves to talk, and is quick to trace every thought and opinion to experience or anecdote.
She is one of the best-known international directors of Indian origin, the brains (and clearly, heart) behind the crossover milestone Bend It Like Beckham, and the recipient of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire honour for her ‘service to British cinema’. But after a conversation with Chadha, you’ll realise that above and beyond all that, she is two things: a storyteller and a Punjabi.
At 57, and seven films down, her filmography may have as many gems as it has misfires, but all her movies are original, each a celebration or, at the very least, an exploration of the ‘misfit’ and every frame is dipped in an inimitable ‘British Punjabi’ perspective.
It’s been a journey that Chadha has revelled in. “I never planned to be a filmmaker, you know,” she says. “I never planned to do any of this. I was a journalist with the local BBC radio and my mission was to tell stories so that people like me weren’t invisible on the screen. Nobody knew who the Asian diaspora was—in Britain, particularly—and my mission was to make us more visible, and yeah, I think I did that,” she says with a laugh.
As the daughter of immigrant parents from pre-independence Punjab, who, along with thousands of other Indian and Pakistani refugees, found a home in Southall, London, after Partition, Chadha has always grappled with her dual identity. Britain was the home her parents chose for her, but it wasn’t easy growing up Brown in a White world, when, at the same time, her home in India felt “alien” as well.
“On my childhood visits to my naani in Yamunanagar (Haryana), I wouldn’t eat anything except ketchup and chips, I was that kid, you know, who was so traumatised. India was foreign to me,” she says, with another laugh.
To understand her roots better, Chadha made a solo trip to India when she hit 18. It was this trip that led her to taking up the arts. Doing an internship at the feminist journal, Manushi, in Delhi, she came across an article by Professor Neera Desai, a leading academic and researcher of woman’s studies, who had analysed depictions of Indian women in cinema. “This article talked about how, on screen, Indian women were either submissive or the goody sort of wife; or, if they were kind of Western, they were whisky-drinking or cigarette-smoking. If they aired an opinion, they were the vamp,” Chadha recalls.
“There was nothing in between, and on reading this, a light went off in my head because it was so true. And that is the moment I realised I needed to somehow get involved in the media.”
And so she started as a genial BBC news reporter moved on to directing documentaries and finally found a home in cinema, becoming Britain’s first woman filmmaker of Asian origin. The latter may have been a label attached inadvertently (though deservedly), but Chadha chose not only to own it but also to define her work by it.
I’ve recorded forever the perspective of the Indian diaspora and helped establish a cultu ral paradigm of those of us who move freely between cultures
“For me, the important thing is that I have recorded forever, in history, the perspective of the Indian diaspora,” she says, “I have helped establish a cultural paradigm of those of us who move freely between cultures. Because the future will be people like us, who live in one country, identify with another, and are, you know, bilingual and bicultural.”
CHADHA BRINGS THIS unique perspective to the events that brought about a defining and devastating moment in Indian history in her new film, Partition: 1947. Called Viceroy’s House in its original avatar and re-titled to commemorate India’s 70th year of independence, the film is a Downton Abbey-esque upstairs/ downstairs retelling of Partition anchored at the house of the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten. It has taken Chadha seven years to make, but in some ways, it was a lifetime in the making.
Chadha’s paternal grandfather, Bishen Singh Chadha was working in Kenya at the time of Partition while his wife and four youngest children were in Punjab. The family found themselves on the wrong side of the border when the division was announced, and had to flee their home that was now in Pakistan for India. The family spent 18 months in a refugee camp before they were reunited with their patriarch, but along the way, lost their youngest child to starvation— an aunt who Chadha never met and has dedicated the film to.
“I had always known that I was going to have to make a film about Partition at some point. I guess I just didn’t have the strength earlier,” Chadha says. Becoming a mother to twins, in 2007, changed that. “I started thinking more about legacy and about why I had been given this gift of communicating in this particular way.”
Chadha also participated in a BBC documentary series called Who Do You Think You Are, which helped trace her family roots. As part of the series, she went to Pakistan or “pre-partition India,” as she refers to it in the show, to a small town called Machine Mohalla in Jhelum, where her grandfather had built a house.
What struck her more than the warmth of the people, who welcomed her with shawls and garlands and helped her find her home, was the fact that when she asked any of the elderly in the town about her grandfather, they all said they’d only come there in 1947 as refugees. “And it was in that moment, really, that I felt this intangible sense of Partition,” Chadha recounts, “because one community had just upped and left, and another community, also displaced, had come in, you know. And so I wanted to do something on Partition that was human and healing and conciliatory and that would try to find a way to move on.”
She initially based her story on Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight. But a meeting with Prince Charles led her to meet Narendra Singh Sarila, who was aide-de-camp to Mountbatten and has written a book on Partition, The Shadow of the Great Game. She built her film on his book, as well as Sarila’s knowledge, based on secret British papers he had discovered.
During her research, she also realised that the British education system had omitted the rise and fall of the British Empire—and consequences such as Partition—from its history books. “So, for me, being a British filmmaker of Indian origin, it was a big deal to make a film that puts a dent in the historical narratives of the British Empire and Churchill, who could never have foreseen a Punjabi woman one day pointing a finger at his version of history, saying, ‘Main ni haingiyan? (Am I not there?).”
Being a British filmmaker of Indian origin, it was a big deal to make a film that puts a dent in the historical narratives of the Empire
“But I didn’t want to do it in an angry way. It was more important to make something human and emotionally affective than jingoistic and nationalistic. I may be right or wrong, but I made this film as a mother.” She continues, “As a mother, you teach your kids to be respectful, to appreciate the differences and similarities, and to have empathy and be more tolerant. No one raises their children to be angry racists, you know. Most historical epics are made from the male perspective, so I very much wanted it to be a mother’s.”
The gamble to make a more balanced film that points a finger at the British, but doesn’t rebuke them, has gone down well with international critics, with the movie scoring 78 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. But in the Indian Subcontinent, where Partition in many ways is still an open wound, it was always going to be difficult for this film to find acceptance.
The movie was first panned in a scathing essay in The Guardian by writer and poet Fatima Bhutto, niece of the late Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan. Bhutto called the film a ‘servile pantomime’ and said that she wept about the ‘deeply colonised imagination’ of the film that empathised with the British and seemed to reinforce the belief that ‘white skin is superior to brown’.
Chadha admits to initially being “quite pissed off” at Bhutto for “misrepresenting the film”. But she says she later came to appreciate the debate when a British-Pakistani author, Sufiya Ahmed, defended the film in a Huffington Post column, calling the ‘attack on Chadha an attack on all of us Brit Asians.’
“The author of that piece was affronted by Bhutto and asked ‘How can an elite Pakistani attack a filmmaker who has showcased British Asians and Britain so even-handedly and fairly over the years for having a colonial mindset?’” says Chadha. “So you’ve got British Muslims feeling different from Pakistanis and coming forward and saying ‘No, she’s one of us!’”
In London, and especially in Southall, where Indians and Pakistanis are united by the Punjabi language rather than divided by homes they had left behind, Chadha asserts that the shared culture, food and music of pre-partition Punjab are links of commonality, which override a jingoistic pride for countries they have never lived in.
“The links between the Pakistanis and us are our Britishness; my dad had more in common with a Pakistani Punjabi because of their shared language, than he did with an Indian from Maharashtra, for example,” she clarifies. “Because we ourselves are bicultural, we don’t often have that sense of nationalism, you know.”
And so Chadha, who identifies herself as a ‘British Punjabi’ (“because it covers all bases”), hopes that the film will be seen as an account of Partition from her unique British Punjabi perspective only. She says that she isn’t so arrogant as to think that the film will be liked by everyone and hopes that she gets to see films about Partition from the perspective of Indian and Pakistani filmmakers too. At the same time, she also points out that India, like America, has a parochial culture, “but does that mean you have the right to decide what is Indian culture? You don’t!” she says emphatically. “We also get to decide, through our version.”
“And for me,” she continues, “it was only important to make a personal film that’s truthful to me, to seek out answers to why my family suffered, and why I don’t have a homeland.”
In a post-Brexit world, Chadha feels Partition 1947 has greater resonance, because “where politicians are trying to shift the agenda towards hate, this film is trying to shift it towards inclusion.”
“I think whoever’s controlling my karma led me to making this as my dharma,” Chadha says, and then breaks into a laugh at her use of Hindu spiritualism to explain her point. “You know, the same thing happened with Bend It Like Beckham, actually. Everyone thinks it’s a comedy, but I had made a film about racism. I wanted to humanise us all and make us see each other with tremendous respect and dignity. And the reason the film was a massive global hit was because it released just after 9/11 and the world needed to feel close to a vision of the world that was inclusive.”
She adds, “The film helped us British Asian immigrants come to the table, sit at it, and be a very much inclusive part of the society. It was able to break through the barriers of race, culture and nationality, and show the British that at the end of the day, we all laugh and cry at the same things and raise our children the same way, and that, just like them, this community ultimately just wants a better life for their kids too.”
And so, just like the film that launched her global career, Chadha hopes Partition: 1947 will also bring the world closer together. “Through the film, I want to actively find ways where we emotionally relate and communicate with each other. Because that’s what being bicultural means,” she says.