The ‘Viceroy’s House’ and ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ director on Syrian refugees, Hollywood discrimination and if Aziz Ansari should date more non-white women
For Gurinder Chadha, the personal is political.
The British Indian filmmaker grew up in postwar England, hearing her grandmother tell stories about the subcontinent and the chaos that followed the partition of the colony into Pakistan and India. “Whenever there was a villainous sound on screen or an English character on TV, she’d get very upset and tell us to turn it off,” the 57-year-old “Bend It Like Beckham” director tells Moneyish. “We’d remind her that she’s in England now, but she was still quite traumatized.”
Best known for reflecting on the societal pressures minority women face, these memories pushed Chadha to make “Viceroy’s House,” out Sept 1. The film dramatizes the run-up to partition and its bloody aftermath via the lenses of Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville), the war hero and last viceroy of India, his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and two lovelorn servants (up-and-comers Manish Dayal and Huma Qureshi.) Much of the action takes place in the viceroy’s household at the palatial Delhi estate where India’s president now resides.
Fans of “Downton Abbey” will note that Bonneville again takes up the role of lord of the manor, a nod that was very much intended. “I wanted to make a sumptuous costume drama,” Chadha says, adding that a domestic household structure made sense as a microcosm of contemporary India. “Upstairs, you have all the important people and downstairs, all the servants. It’s a vehicle to look at both sides.”
Not everyone is happy with that framework. The Pakistani political heiress Fatima Bhutto called the film, in which white actors get a lot of screen time, a “servile pantomime of partition.” But Chadha notes that she was telling the story from her perspective as a member of the British Asian diaspora, and not an Indian or “Pakistani nationalist,” as she calls Bhutto. “Being part of a diaspora means you’re probably multilingual and automatically multi-nationalist,” she says. “There’s a clash.”
“House” is topical and not just because its release was pegged to India’s 70th anniversary celebrations this August. The week that Chadha was filming a big scene set in a refugee camp that saw 1,000 extras clad in tattered clothes coincided with when 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan washed up on the Turkish shore. That’s something Chadha could identify with. Her other grandmother became a displaced refugee after the partition and made the dangerous journey from modern-day Pakistan. Later, she found her husband in a refugee camp. “The same thing that happened 70 years ago was happening right then,” says Chadha. “It was very resonant.”
Born in Kenya, Chadha is easily among the most prominent British female filmmakers today. But she still faces challenges getting funding for pet projects. “The people who write the checks don’t think there’s an audience for the stories women and people of color want to tell,” she says.
Despite the recent success of women-led and directed films like “Girls Trip,” “Wonder Woman” and “Hidden Figures,” she doesn’t think that’s likely to change soon. The myth that such stories don’t sell has been “systematically disproven,” she says. “But even though I’m seen as successful, as soon as I want a lead of color and a woman, the commercialness sudden goes down.”
This is for the woman who gave Keira Knightley her first big break— the British actress was casted by Chadha for “Bend It Like Beckham” at the age of 16. “I saw 40 girls audition that day, but she stood out,” says Chadha. “She crossed her legs, sat in the chair and said, ‘Oh My God. Everything you’ve written is like the arguments I have with my mother all the time.’ She’s a natural.”
She’s also a fan of young entertainers of South Asian origin like Aziz Ansari. “They’re refusing to do the Indian accent,” she says. “That’s great.” She’s also not bothered by criticism directed at Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani for primarily dating white women on their shows. “Aziz is very personal and authentic,” she says, adding that if enough South Asian women “bitch at him,” he’d be happy to cast brown-skinned women too.
Chadha herself is taking a page from Tyler Perry, who started his own studio and even bought his own 200,000-square-foot lot to make the black-led films of his ambitions. Earlier this year, she sold a minority stake in her Bend It TV production arm to producers FremantleMedia. The two companies will be collaborating on TV shows with Chadha’s signature. Coming up: an American series about a Muslim-American community and a British period drama set in India.
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