Contemporary politics came to the fore once again at the Berlin Film Festival. This time it concerned “Viceroy’s House,” Gurinder Chadha’s period piece about turbulent events at the time that India separated from the British Empire.
While the end of end of empire is clearly large canvas stuff, Chadha chose not only to set the film in a microcosm – the ridiculously opulent palace inhabited by the Viceroy of India and 500 servants – she also pitched it as a personal project.
Chadha was born in East Africa of Punjabi parents and grew up in the U.K. where hostile locals told her to go home. “But my homeland was now in Pakistan,” she said. She refused to call it anything other than “pre-partition India,” until a research trip took her to the Punjab and her family’s ancestral home, where five refugee families had taken up residence.
“Now we are seeing the film at time when the politics of hate and division are so prevalent in our society. It is not just in America, but also in France, Germany and Britain where we have the rise of the Right. This film is a timely reminder of what happens when you promote hate and division,” Chadha said.
The film makers paid tribute to Om Puri, the veteran Indian actor who died last month between the film’s completion and its premiere. “Om Puri’s character manifested how we were trying to balance and humanize everybody. A lot of (Indian and Pakistani) films demonize the other side,” Chadha said.
“We need to move on. (Failing to do so, would be) playing into the hands of the divide and rule brigade,” she continued. It is significant that our premiere is here in Berlin, a city familiar with division,” she said, a reference to the Berlin Wall that divided the German capital until 1989, and whose traces pass through the festival venues in Potsdamer Platz.
The event saw producer Deepak Nayar, actors Manish Dayal, Gillian Anderson, Huma Qureshi, and screenwriter Paul Mayeda Berges, also weigh in with contemporary, political observations. But it was left to British actor Hugh Bonneville, to deliver a note of levity.
“As some of you know I am not only an extremely modest actor, I have an extraordinary range. Going from playing an Earl in ‘Downton Abbey’ to a Viscount in ‘Viceroy’s House’ shows my breadth,” he quipped in response to a question about the similarity of the roles.