Director Gurinder Chadha and leading lady Huma Qureshi of Partition: 1947 – in conversation with Team Box Office
BOI: All your films have a comical tone or undertone. The trailer of this film suggests that it is a serious story. How exactly is this film different from your previous movies?
Gurinder Chadha (GC): As far as possible, I want to make films that are different. But the problem is, every time you make a successful film, everyone wants you to make films like that over and over again. I guess it makes commercial sense to do that but I have always been trying to do different things.
I have wanted to make a big, epic, period film from a very long time, like on a subject like this, but I didn’t have the courage to do that before I became a mother. After I became a mother, I think it became very important to me to tell my personal story and find some closure. Since my family is originally from Jhelum Rawal Pindi and I have grown up in London, I have never had access to my homeland because it is now in Pakistan and it is hard to get a visa to visit Pakistan.
So it was important for me to tell this story, also uniquely from my perspective as a British-Indian, as a woman and as a mother. But, within that, when I started my research, I was blown away by the information that we managed to find and that opened the other doors for more research. Which changed the history the way I have seen it. Everything we have been told about Partition is not true, and my film shows exactly why Partition happened.
BOI: If we talk about our history, the text in India will be different from that in Pakistan or in Britain. Does your film amalgamate the history of all these countries?
GC: I am the amalgamation, it’s very simple… I am Indian, British, Punjabi and my forefathers are from that side. The Punjabi I speak is very patwari Punjabi, which they speak in Pakistan. So there is connective tissue between the whole. So I made a film that I feel is very fair and that looks at the facts and the key players at the time, and their agenda.
BOI: How did you cast Huma?
GC: Huma was introduced to me by a tape audition along with some other actresses, and her tape really jumped out. I was very impressed with her reading. I liked the way she has portrayed the character. Even her acting is superb and she has done such fantastic scenes. She was very feisty and full of anger but, at the same time, empathetic. I also like her features and I thought she looked very ‘1947’. I thought she could fit nicely into a period film. Then I met her and watched her Gangs of Wasseypur, and I liked her. Sometimes, people have spark and I like to run with it.
BOI: And, Huma, what were your thoughts when you learnt that Gurinder was making a film on a serious subject?
Huma Qureshi (HQ): I had watched Gurinder’s film Bhaji On The Beach while I was in college and I really loved it. I was very curious about the person who had made this film. I read about her and began following her films since then. I had no idea I would get a chance to work with her so early in my career. I thank her and Seher Latif, the casting director.
One day, he called me and said Gurinder was making this film and that she was looking for an actress. He suggested that I read the script and we should send her an audition tape. When I read the script, I knew it was going to be a very important film of my career. Not only was it a beautifully written script, I also loved the subject matter. I thought it was such timely film to be made because it speaks about what troubles our world and our society today. It takes a very brave filmmaker to make a film like that, especially a woman.
Women don’t really get to make a lot of films, and when they do, also it’s always on certain topics which doesn’t seems to be their domain. So I thought it was a very brave film for her to attempt. I always choose scripts that I feel are different in the sense that they try to say something that other people are not trying to say. Whether it is Gangs of Wasseypur, Jolly LLB or Badlapur, they are of different genres, they are different in budget and size, but they are all trying to push the envelope in some way. I think that is my destiny as an actor and I will continue to do that.
BOI: You have worked in this industry for three decades. Can you tell us about your journey?
HQ: Really? That old? (Laughs)
GC: My first film was in 1989. My journey was tough and I always had to fight for any film that I wanted to make, even today. I have made a lot of money for a lot of people. But the thing is, it is always tough to get your perspective out there. I don’t really care whether my films are small or big. I have a global audience and I have to reach my global audience. So I make films to be on that scale and of commercial value for my particular global audience.
BOI: What were the difficulties that you faced while making this film?
GC: The main difficulty was we did not have much of a budget. I was very happy that Reliance came on board and particularly Amitabh Jhunjhunwala, who really loved the script. They showed us great support for our film.
I think getting the script together was tough because I had to be mindful of the facts but I also didn’t want to offend anyone. I was making a film that was not only on a controversial subject but also very sensitive for many people. So I had to make sure I did my research accurately. I also had to turn it into a drama that was entertaining as well as informative and educational. It took some time to get the balance right. I wanted the film to be respectful yet hard-hitting and that was the hardest thing.
We have producers like Bend It Films, BBC Film, Reliance Entertainment and more, different sets of people who have different ideas and opinions, so we struggled with that when we came to the editing table. It’s not about the Indian view or the British view, it’s about both, and I become the conjugate between which a sensitive story like this is told.
The important thing to know is that it’s not only a very unique story told from a British-Indian perspective; it is also a film made by a mother, and mothers don’t get to make films very often. It’s a film on a massive and sensitive subject, of the biggest migration in human history. Millions of people were displaced in just a couple of weeks. So, as a mother, I think it is important to say this.
BOI: Huma, when you took up this role, what did you discover about yourself as an actor?
HQ: Well, with every role you discover new things about yourself. This is a period film and I had to do the preparation in terms of language, dressing and hair style. Gurinder had already researched a lot in terms of pictures from that period. I watched a lot of YouTube videos of Vijayalaxmi Pandit, how she spoke and delivered her speeches. My character is from 1947 but she is educated and works as a translator, so she had to understand both worlds really well. To speak in English and being a woman from a particular time period means there is shyness, a certain body language and some limitations. I had to bring all these things into the character I was playing.
I had to understand how women used to deal with the environment. We are only a few who are privileged. There are so many women out there who can’t decide what profession to choose, whom to marry and how to live
This film is about Partition, about identity, about how because of geopolitics and Western interests, you ended up diving people. There was so much unnecessary loss of human life. But, in the larger picture, it becomes collateral damage. I feel very strongly about this. So when I read the script, not just my character, it resonated with me. Since cinema as a medium touches so many people, this film will raise a lot of questions.
BOI: You are working with many international stars. What is the difference between working overseas and working here?
HQ: It is great fun working with different people and life processes. It’s great that everyone comes with their own training and experience. I too have a background in theatre and it is very refreshing. So it’s so nice to meet actors from different countries and work on something together.
I loved Michael Gambon…I total him that very late but he is brilliant. I also loved working with Omji (Puri), he was amazing, and the love I had for him reflects on screen because he treated me like a daughter. Manish (Dayal) is lovely and he is an American actor. All my friends want me to introduce him to them when he comes to India!
BOI: Is it difficult to strike the right balance between actors from different backgrounds?
GC: Yes, it’s not easy. For instance, Huma and Manish have different styles. Manish is from the US and is very intense as an actor, whereas, you, Huma, are from India and have an internalised way of acting. He always wants to take another shot so that he can do better. So you have things like that but good actors are good actors, no matter where they come from. For me, a good actor is someone who really becomes the character that they are portraying. So you can’t see them any more; you can only relate to that character.
BOI: Is there any emotional baggage that’s left behind now that the shoot is complete?
GC: Well, I am very happy making this film. We have actually put a subject into the spotlight that… In England, a lot of children didn’t even know that Britain had an empire or that Britain was even in India. I have had people coming up to me, saying they had no idea about India’s Partition or what exactly happened. We have also taken a subject that most people don’t want to talk about. I am sure my mother and my ancestors will be proud of me because of this film. And I can tell my mom I have made this without maar kuttai but the film has been made with a lot of tameez.
BOI: How did your family and friends react when they learnt that you were doing this film?
HQ: They were very excited, of course. My parents are dying to watch the film and we are going to make them watch it very soon. But I am not sure which version I should show them – English or Hindi. I think they will enjoy both; all of us have our Partition stories running in the family, some bitter some sweet. I think my parents will be proud. And we have made a good film, so I am hoping they like the film.
GC: Well, you are the judge because I did my job. (Laughs)
BOI: The film has already released in the UK. What kind of response are you getting from the audience?
GC: Very good. All the producers are very happy with the box-office results. Also, we released it in Australia and they were very happy with the box office there as well. People over there are very interested in British-India and want to watch this film. I see a lot of people appreciating this film because the last British film made on this subject was Gandhi, which released 35 years ago. A lot of people were quite pissed about what happened and some were also pleased to see how the British behaved during the Raj.
BOI: After this film, what changes have you seen in yourself as an actor?
HQ: I am improved…a brand new. (Laughs)
GC: I think she has learnt how they used to speak in 1947.
HQ: She has made sure I should speak like that now.
BOI: What kind of response are you expecting from the Indian release?
GC: Well, I don’t know. India is changing and it’s not the same country where I released Bend It Like Beckham or Bride And Prejudice. I remember, with Bend It Like Beckham, we created multiplex cinema. PVR was so small then and it was due to Bend It Like Beckham that PVR created a multiplex. Now India has amazing filmmakers and great films. Now people are much more serious about cinema and they are making intellectual subjects. So I think people will be interested in my film and people are also watching it around the world. In England, Australia, the US, it’s all the same. Winston Churchill had said, “History will be kind to me because I will write it.” Sadly, that is not true because history is not kind enough. You get a very rare chance for someone to re-tell history.
HQ: It is very difficult to say what will work and what won’t; even the biggest filmmakers and directors cannot predict what will work. But I do know if you make a film with conviction, people will see the honesty in it, and people will connect with that. As Gurinder said, it is a very unique film and it’s not a film by a British filmmaker or an Indian filmmaker, its Indo filmmaker. I think that unique perspective offers a very balanced point of view of what really happened. And that should shine through.