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Twenty-four years after she burst onto the scene with Bhaji on the Beach and 15 years after she introduced the world to Keira Knightley with Bend It Like Beckham, Gurinder Chadha heads to Berlin to showcase her latest film, Viceroy’s House.
Set in the final days of British colonial rule in India, the historical drama focuses on Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville, of course) as he prepares for the deadly partition in 1947 that would see a country divided and a new nation, Pakistan, created.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Chadha discussed offering a different viewpoint on Mountbatten’s legacy, working with the late, great Om Puri in his final film role and why it would be a travesty if Ken Loach doesn’t win at the BAFTAs on Sunday night.
The partition of India is a fascinating and hugely important period, but not something that regularly comes up in feature films.
Well the first film was Gandhi, which was 35 years ago. So we were due!
Was there any concern about portraying Lord Mountbatten as a rather sympathetic character during this period, someone who was trying to do his best but had his hand forced, when he’s not generally considered as much historically.
I had always grown up with the knowledge that many people in India absolutely hated him and blamed him for the partition. People would say, “He destroyed our country.” So when I embarked on the film, people would say to me, “Make sure you tell the world what a terrible man he was, and what he did to us.” But I think rather than be overly sympathetic toward him, what I wanted to show was that he came out with every good intention to help India back, but once he got there, he was a bit out of step. That there was an agenda — people wanted [the partition] and had created events to make the passage of it easier. But he brought the date forward, which brought even more problems. So he is not completely off the hook.
Have you shown Viceroy’s House to any of Mountbatten’s children or grandchildren?
Yes, when I finished, I told Lady Pamela (Mountbatten’s youngest daughter) and told her that I wanted to show her the film. I had met her a few times, and she’d helped us with costumes and other details. She asked me for a sneak peek, and I told her I would give her a private screening. So she came, and she invited all her children, grandchildren, close friends and staff, so there ended up being 30-40 people. I think Pamela was very happy with the film, but I think it was her grandchildren who were really blown away, because they had no idea about their grandfather’s life in that way. They wrote to me after saying how it was such an enlightening film for them.
Was Hugh Bonneville always your first choice?
You know I think he is the perfect person for the role. When it comes to casting, I think that the right person always gets the part because it’s fate. With Hugh, he has perfected that charming English bloke, whose very fair and wants to please everyone, but he’s out of his depth. I think he took that very well. Although, as a man, even with our schedule in India, he would go off to do charity work while we were shooting. He was very involved with Indian charities while we were there.
What was your experience working with the late Om Puri, who passed away in January. Was this his final role?
He was thrilled to be working on a film 35 years after Gandhi, because he was in that as a young man. He absolutely loved the script. We actually have him on camera saying, “You’re doing a great job. This is going to be a great film. I can’t wait to see it. I’m so happy. Good job. Keep it up.” So I’m gutted that he won’t be able to see the final film. But there are very few people in our profession that can traverse the Indian film industry and Hollywood and Britain, and he’s one of the few. In my film, he plays a resident father and blind freedom fighter, and he brought great humility and empathy to that. Even though it isn’t a huge part, it is a poignant part. In his last months with the Indian government and Pakistan, he was quite upset about the hatred between the two countries. I think it was fitting for him that his last film was one that was calling for more understanding and reconciliation between the two countries.
That’s so sad that he never got to see the finished film
And I think the other thing, what Om and I were also discussing, was that the film was very topical. As were shooting, the whole Syrian refugee thing was happening. When I was shooting the refugee scenes, I felt very overwhelmed by the idea that I had created a refugee camp with a thousand extras, while all the Indian newspapers were talking about the Syrian refugees in makeshift camps everywhere. And of course, one of the days we were shooting was the day the boy washed up on the beach, and that put a whole different take on the shoot.
The film is having its world premiere the same night as the BAFTA Awards. Annoyed that you don’t get to be at Royal Albert Hall?
No, not at all! I would much rather be here in Berlin premiering my movie. But my heart will be with Ken Loach. I will be watching and listening. I really hope that it’s a slam-dunk for Ken. That’s what I really want.
Simply for the speech alone?
Exactly! That’s what the whole world wants! And what a compassionate film I, Daniel Blake is as well. What a remarkable film. If he doesn’t win, then I tell you there is no justice. The BAFTAs are about supporting British talent. When someone puts their head above the pulpit and makes a film, we all have to support it.
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