Growing up in England gave Kenya-born filmmaker Gurinder Chadha – whose grandparents were from India – an interesting sense of identity.
So when she started her journey into filmmaking, Gurinder wanted to open up the definition of what it means to be a British filmmaker.
For her, it was to make English films that included Brits who looked like her. Secondly, she wanted to tell stories that would appeal to audiences from every part of the world.
Well, she did just that with her first project, a documentary titled I’m British But, and the 2002 hit, Bend It Like Beckham.
The story about a girl (played by Parminder Nagra) trying to make her dream come true, despite interferences from people in her life, is so relatable that the film played in every single country in the world, including North Korea!
Interestingly enough, Bend It Like Beckham is a take of the director’s own relationship with her father, whom Gurinder said was a feminist in his own way and someone who encouraged her to do what made her happy.
“It is always gratifying when you make a personal film that has touched so many lives,” the 57-year-old Gurinder shared at a talk she gave titled Lifetime In Filming, at APU University, Kuala Lumpur, recently.
“If there is any defining point to my work, it is to acknowledge the struggle to be who you are.”
Her brand of fusion with a strong touch on female empowerment and defining one’s identity are obvious again and again in her other films including Bride & Prejudice – which she described as a British Bollywood film – and It’s A Wonderful Afterlife.
She also wrote The Mistress Of Spice, starring Aishwarya Rai, which was directed by her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, and directed teen comedy Angus, Thongs And Perfect Snogging.
With her latest project, Viceroy’s House – scheduled to open in Malaysia in August – Gurinder makes yet another personal film. Viceroy’s House is a political historical drama set in the year 1947, just before India gained its independence from the British, and Pakistan was formed.
When the British divided India into the Muslim country Pakistan and the new nation India, they forced a mass migration displacing 14 million people. It was reported that up to a million died as a result of violence, starvation and disease.
One of those families affected was Gurinder’s. The filmmaker has said in other interviews that her grandmother was traumatised well into her old age and that her aunt had died of starvation as a baby due to this uprooting.
“In 2008, I went to Pakistan for the first time for the BBC documentary Who Do You Think You Are. I was a bit reticent about going because of my family’s history with the country…” she remembered.
But once there, she received a warm welcome from the townspeople who helped her to find her grandfather’s old home. It was at that point, Gurinder said, that she knew she wanted to tell a story on the partition.
“It’s interesting to make an English film on this subject, because it’s quite critical of the English. Churchill, for example, doesn’t come out so well here like in other British films. But it was important to me to make it, as a healing process,” the director explained.
She knew the task at hand is next to impossible as everyone has their own version of history.
“My version of the partition is a very British version,” she acknowledged. “An Indian director would have made a different film, a Pakistani director would’ve made a different film, a white British person would’ve made a different film. So, we all would have different perspectives. But, the most important thing is to get your facts right.”
Researching for the film took five years, with a lot of her script based on The Shadow Of The Great Game by Narendra Singh Sarila, as well as top secret government documents that were recently declassified.
Gurinder said she found the real reason why the partition happened: “I had always been told, growing up, partition happened because we couldn’t get along – the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. That we started fighting each other, and that’s why the British had no choice but to divide the country.
“My evidence says the opposite of that – that a lot of people were getting on and that actually a lot of the violence were orchestrated for political ends. But that’s a bold statement.
“I have to be clear that I am taking on the British traditional version of history… (But) in a way I am challenging everybody really. But that’s what you do when you make a historical film.”
Viceroy’s House stars Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Michael Gambon and the late Om Puri, with music by A.R. Rahman.
Gurinder added that she realised that films – and not historical films per se – can be seen as way to document what is happening at a specific moment in time. Bend It Like Beckham, she noted, captured what it was like for Asians growing up in Britain in the new millennium.
“Without making films about yourself and your community, you lose that sense of history. That is why I urge more filmmakers to take on that responsibility.”
One of the ways to do that, Gurinder advised, is to keep the story truthful and authentic.
“The more truthful and authentic your story is, the more universal it becomes,” she told the audience. “Don’t think of making films just for Malaysia, think of making films for the world.
“You can tell a Malaysian story and it can still work for the whole world. Think internationally. Humans respond to the same story: we cry at the same thing, we laugh at the same thing and we get scared by the same thing. Films are incredibly universal.
“When they see my films, I want people to think that there is more that unites us than separates us; that we are more alike than we are different. That’s my mission.”