Gurinder Chadha is a distinctive director. Ever since her first short, but important, first film I’m British, But . . . (1990), she has sought to make films that draw on her personal experience but which also reach out to audiences using music and strong emotions. From 2000’s What’s Cooking she has written scripts with her partner Paul Mayeda Berges and an American sense of the popular ‘feelgood’ formula has been melded with Chadha’s own sense of joyfulness. Perhaps as a result, her films have tended to fare better with broad public audiences than with critics. Nevertheless, her importance within British Cinema has been recognised. Viceroy’s House has been a long time in the making and it feels like the most personal of Chadha’s films. In the final credits, amongst all the archive photographs and newsreel footage of both the carnage and the celebrations that followed the partition of British India and the emergence of two new independent states, she tells the story of a woman who fled the Punjab. As the caption reads, that woman was the director’s grandmother.
There have been many films that have tried to deal with Partition and its aftermath. Gurinder Chadha is not alone in being a diaspora director ‘returning’ to the sub-continent to make a partition film using funding and infrastructure from Europe and North America. Other examples include Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998), Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998) and Vic Sarin’s Partition (2007). There are many ‘popular’ Indian films that include stories about partition and its aftermath, but some of the best are examples of art cinema or parallel cinema, such as Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy of films about the aftermath of partition in Bengal, Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan (1998) or a film like Garam Hava (Scorching Winds, 1973) by M.S. Sathyu. In this context, Gurinder Chadha’s film needs to be seen as an attempt to introduce an outline history of the process of Partition and British withdrawal to a broad audience. She explains all of this in an interview in the Observer (and see below for a video presentation of her motivations). The angry denouncements of Viceroy’s House by writers such as Fatima Bhutto in the Guardian seem to rather miss the point.
Chadha has based her film on a range of published histories and has used a romance between two Punjabis, a Hindu young man and a Muslim young woman, to provide an emotional charge that takes us into the ‘personal stories’. This romance is part of what she herself has referred to as a ‘below the stairs’ narrative to compare with the story of diplomatic negotiation hurriedly conducted by the ‘last Viceroy’, Louis Mountbatten, and Indian political leaders. Chadha also includes the activities of Lady Mountbatten, although not the rumoured flirtation with Nehru. In the space of only 106 minutes, Viceroy’s House tries to be both epic and personal. Inevitably, the historical detail is limited, but it serves as an introduction and as far as I can see it is fairly accurate. I was surprised to hear on the BBC’s Film Programme that the host Charlie Brooker didn’t know the history and found the politics interesting but as he put it, “heavy lifting”. So, perhaps Gurinder Chadha was wise to try to sugar the pill of a history that should be taught in schools (i.e. the history of the British Empire).
The ‘below the stairs’ reference is to the popular British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) that Chadha must have watched as a child (she was born in 1960). A re-boot of the series was attempted in 2010 which ran for two seasons. Inevitably, however, for many reviewers the reference point has been Downton Abbey (2010-15), especially with the portrayal of Louis Mountbatten by Hugh Bonneville, one of the stars of Downton as the Earl. My feeling is that Bonneville is miscast as the Viceroy. Although he is closer in age to the historical Viceroy than James Fox in Jinnah (1998), he feels rather ‘chummy’ and not like a successful military commander and second cousin of the King Emperor. From her various statements, it seems clear that Gurinder Chadha is much more familiar with the British ‘heritage’ films and TV programmes about the Raj than with the many Indian and diasporic films about the end of the Raj and its aftermath. However, the romance she conjures up does figure in some of those Indian films and I felt a sudden recognition in the closing scenes when the Hindu boy seeks and finds his Muslim girlfriend (e.g. in Train to Pakistan and in Earth, where the religious mix is reversed). I was suddenly reminded of scenes from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) in which a young Muslim-Hindu couple are caught up in communal riots in Mumbai. Both films are scored by A. R. Rahman. I found the score for Viceroy’s House to be conventional and almost lost in the presentation for much of the film, but it worked in those closing scenes. I’m aware that for some UK audiences, the romance seems ‘tagged on’ and unnecessary – but it is central to Chadha’s strategy. She wants audiences to both understand the complexity of the political negotiations and to feel the emotional torment on a personal level. I think she gets close to doing that. I’m not convinced though by the romance. The two actors don’t seem well-matched. I know Huma Qureshi from Gangs of Wasseypur, but I didn’t recognise the actor playing Jeet Kumar. It was only later that I discovered that Manish Dyal is an American actor. Gurinder Chadha appears to be concerned to use British or American South Asians or Indians who are used to working in ‘international productions’ rather than actors working in Indian film industries. I wonder if this will be a barrier to acceptance by Indian audiences? (There is, however, a brief appearance from Om Puri, who died recently, far too young, and who will be sorely missed.)
Having discussed the film with friends, I think there is a consensus that although the mis-castings are a barrier and the romance could have been better handled, overall the film has attracted a popular audience and it does deliver that basic history lesson. The trailer perhaps inadvertently provides the key to the problems Gurinder Chadha faced. She has explained how difficult it is to sell a story like this to funders for mainstream films and I’m assuming that the UK trailer is the price you have to pay to satisfy a conservative distribution/exhibition environment. Several people have told me that the trailer put them off seeing the film or that it nearly stopped them (and they said that would have been a shame).
The film has received quite a lot of coverage in the UK media, with Gurinder Chadha responding. Yesterday, when I thought all had quietened down, another over-the-top piece was published in the Guardian by Ian Jack. I was particularly disappointed to read this as I usually enjoy Ian Jack’s writing. He is an ‘old India hand’ and therefore perhaps emotionally involved, but he claims the film as ‘fake history’ and detects that Chadha and her fellow writers, her husband and the British playwright and scriptwriter Moira Buffini, have been too reliant on a 2006 book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila. The two central findings of this book that Jack finds objectionable/not proven/not credible are 1) that the British government’s long-term policy was to support a separate Pakistan as an ally against Soviet influence in South Asia and that 2) that this was Churchill’s policy formulated before he lost power in 1945 and introduced secretly into the 1947 negotiations by Lord Ismay, Churchill’s wartime military assistant after 1940. By 1947 he’d become Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff. The point about British policy seems to me to be not really an issue. After 1947 Pakistan became a Western ally, India became a non-aligned nation with ‘normal’ relations with the Soviet Union. Ismay and Churchill’s role in all this (in the film, it is a document supposedly drawn up for Churchill that provides the basis for the Partition boundaries in Punjab) is obviously more debatable. But then, as most historians would agree, Churchill’s racist comments about India and Indians as well as his extreme anti-communism were well-known and it certainly seems plausible that his influence may have been felt on men pressurised to make decisions in July/August 1947. Ian Jack attempts to discredit Sarila by quoting various British historian’s reviews of the book. I haven’t read either Sarila’s book or the full reviews Jack mentions (I have read other quite favourable reviews, but possibly by less distinguished reviewers) so I’m not going to comment further. I only wish to point out that where anyone stands in these debates about Partition depends to a certain extent on where their broader sympathies lie with Indian, Pakistani or British positions. Again I don’t favour one over another, but I do feel for Gurinder Chadha in her attempt to view her personal story in the context of all of these political machinations.
On one score, Ian Jack is certainly on shaky ground. He asserts: “The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office”. In fact it has had a ‘wide’ UK release and after two weekends (i.e. ten days in cinemas) it has made £2.34 million. Given that the film did quite well in the first week with older audiences, the full two week total might be closer to £2.8 to £3 million which is more than OK for a UK release. I will be intrigued to see how the film does in other territories and especially what happens when it reaches India. Indian media company Reliance is a production partner and should promote the film, but so far there seems to be confusion about when an Indian release might happen. I’ve seen March, June and August mentioned.
In the video clip below, Gurinder Chadha describes the long preparation process for her film which she started mainly because of her experience in travelling back to Kenya and then to her family’s home in Punjab as part of the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are? in 2006. The whole of that episode is online and it’s a fascinating watch. When she reaches Pakistan and finds the family house which was allocated to Muslim refugee families fleeing in the opposite direction to her grandparents in 1947, she knows she must tell the story of Partition.
Nowhere in Africa is an engrossing film and it is no surprise that it won the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2002. It is adapted from an autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig in which she explores her childhood experience of arriving in Kenya in 1938. On the Region 2 DVD Zweig says that one of the features of the film that she appreciated most was the representation of rural Africa. She felt that writer-director Caroline Link had captured the beauty that she had experienced as a child without resorting to the simply picturesque or exotic (“no lions or leopards”). This is an important observation which rings true. The film raises a number of unanswered questions but in respect of its images it is certainly one of the best European perspectives on Africa in the mid 20th century.
1938. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a successful lawyer in Hesse, has left Germany and taken a job as farm manager in Kenya. He fears the rise of the Nazis and as a (non-practising) Jew thinks it wise to leave his comfortable middle-class existence for rural Africa. Stricken with malaria he has arranged for his wife and small daughter to join him. Jettel (Juliane Köhler) enjoys her comfortable life and ignores her husband’s plea to bring useful items. 8 year-old Regina is less happy in Germany and immediately takes to Africa and especially to her father’s cook Owuor who has used local knowledge to care for Walter during his bout of malaria. When war breaks Walter is interned by the British and Jettel and Regina lose their home but with the help of Nairobi’s Jewish community solutions are found and the family are soon together again on a different farm. The film follows the family up until their departure from Kenya in 1947 when they return to Germany. The drama comes from the different experiences of each member of the family as well as the relationships between them (and with Owuor and the local Pokot people). The fifth major character is Süsskind, another German Jewish man who migrated earlier than Walter and who helps the Redlich family at various times.
The narrative is constructed in retrospect by Regina as she travels back to Germany in 1947. The film begins and ends with her voiceover. The three central characters each represent a different approach to the problems of migration. Walter is the rationalist (though he also claims to be an idealist). They had to leave. He doesn’t want to be a farmer but he’ll buckle down. The war changes him – he joins the British Army in Kenya and he uses the demobilisation scheme to get the family back to Germany. Jettel follows a classic Hollywood ‘journey’. Initially she finds it hard to adjust and her middle-class, European stance makes it difficult for her to get on with Owuor and the local people. Eventually though she becomes a farmer and is reluctant to return. Jettel’s story might have made a conventional melodrama. Regina ‘blossoms’ in Africa. She is the narrator of the story and she mixes not only with Owuor but also the local children. It is not until she attends an English boarding school in Nairobi that she feels ‘alien’. Since she makes the transition over nine years from little girl to bright teenager it is more difficult to assess how she feels in the closing scenes (since she now understands more about her parents’ marriage).
Nowhere in Africa is a long film (140 mins) and some critics/reviewers have argued that the narrative drive is lost in the final third. There is something in this charge and sometimes the film does feel more like a memoir of a period than a filmic narrative in the mainstream sense. This might also take something away from those unanswered questions.
British colonial Africa
Nowhere in Africa was commercially successful in Germany ($10 million) and in North America ($6 million). The third biggest territory was Spain (over $2 million) and then Australia. In the UK, Box Office Mojo quotes $400,00 – not bad for a subtitled film, but half the Australian total and not much more than Argentina ($370,000). The first three UK reviews of the film that I found each see the film as underwhelming, simplistic, ‘safe’ etc. These reviews also tend to be inaccurate as well as missing some of the interesting angles. Perhaps the film suffered from comparisons – to Polanski’s The Pianist and Out of Africa, the Isaak Dinesen story that became a Hollywood melodrama with Meryl Streep? I’m not sure that either is a useful comparison, though Out of Africa does share several important elements. The reviews don’t really pick up the colonial melodrama issues that interest me. In several ways, the most interesting link would be to the Claire Denis film Chocolat (France/WGer/Cameroon 1988) – which also features the daughter of middle-class Europeans and their family servants.
Kenya has always been prominent in British cinema’s relationship with colonial Africa – and with the whole ideological terrain of colonialism, independence struggles and post-colonialism. Putting aside the specific case of South Africa, Kenya was perhaps the most attractive colony for European settlement, based to some extent on plantation development for tea, coffee and maize. The climate and the fertility in the ‘White Highlands’ of Central Kenya meant that were reserved for white settlers by the colonial administrations – displacing local farmers and reducing grazing land for nomadic peoples. The settlers were mainly middle-class British, but also other Europeans and in UK popular culture their lifestyle was seen as hedonistic in the ‘Happy Valley’ region – later represented in the film White Mischief (UK 1987). The exclusivity in this region also helped to encourage local political independence movements which began to be active in the 1920s and grew in strength immediately after 1945. In the early 1950s the same area became an important location for British adventure films including Where No Vultures Fly (1951) – which dealt with game poaching and the struggle to establish national parks in Kenya.
Nowhere in Africa is interesting in not really featuring the British upper middle-class settlers and instead offering more practical settler-farmers with few graces. One farmer has to use the cook as a translator as Walter has learned some Swahili but not English. When Jettel and Regina are interred in a hotel in Nairobi, however, it is a very upmarket establishment and their other experiences include meeting the Nairobi Jewish community, who are British and middle-class, and experiencing the boarding school. When they do begin effective farming, the crop is maize which was mainly introduced by the British as a cash crop. The simmering political unrest is not directly represented – though arguably it is still there. One of the telling lines of dialogue is from an old man who Walter meets when he starts work on the second farm. The man says he knows the land and can help – he’s known in for 40 years. He then says that “if someone steals your cow and eats it, you can forget it. But if they steal your land it is still there and you’ll never forget it”. He is prepared to help because Walter is not a ‘bwana’ who seeks to get rich by stealing more land. This is one of the scenes in which Regina is not present and therefore one she must invent from what she understands happened to her parents. The whole narrative is narrated from her perspective – which was a child’s and then a teenager’s. She was at that age less interested in politics and more in love with the country and its (native) peoples.
I would recommend Nowhere in Africa for several reasons, including excellent performances by the principals. It offers a different European perspective on Africa, one that is still eurocentric but is less trapped in the coloniser-colonised binary. It’s also a film about a girl growing up that to my ageing male eye seems to be authentic and well worth engaging with. I’d also be interested in a film which told the parents’ story in more detail. I found the film in the bargain bin at Fopp (£3 for a DVD) and I consider it money well spent.