As India marks the 70th anniversary of its independence this year, a slew of movies tackling its colonial history are hitting cinema screens, including a controversial account of partition by the director of Bend it Like Beckham.
Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House is released in India on Friday under the name Partition: 1947. It tells the story of how India’s last governor, Lord Mountbatten, oversaw the end of three centuries of British rule.
Partition and the British Empire have been the source of dramatic material for filmmakers in the past, from Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning Gandhi to David Lean’s A Passage to India.
Hindi movie Lagaan used cricket to spotlight a village’s rebellion against a draconian colonial-era tax.
But experts say the period has often been overlooked by filmmakers in the past, despite its dramatic potential — perhaps because the trauma of partition was still so fresh in people’s minds.
“As a space for stories, 1947 has not been mined as much as WWI [First World War] or WWII [Second World War], or other historical events that have caught the imagination of the world,” film writer Shubhra Gupta said.
“Now there is enough distance between 1947 and us, and we are able to look back less in anger and anguish,” added Gupta, a film critic and columnist at the Indian Express newspaper.
Other Western movies to deal with the Raj era this year include The Black Prince, which recreates the life of Duleep Singh, the last king of Punjab, who was deposed and taken to Britain as a child, never to return to his homeland.
Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul explores the true story of the unusual relationship between Queen Victoria, played by Judi Dench, and a young Indian clerk, Abdul Karim.
Viceroy’s House portrays the disastrous aftermath of partition when an untold number of people — some estimates say up two million — died in savage violence as Hindus and Muslims turned on one another.
Director Chadha, whose grandparents fled what is now Pakistan during partition, said the story was “intensely personal”.
“My family rarely talked about partition because it was so raw and painful but my grandmother, who lived with us, was traumatised by what happened. So to make a film like this in India is a big deal for me,” she said by email.
Chadha said the story of partition was deeply relevant today, as the world struggles to cope with a new refugee crisis and a rise in nationalism.
“The day I was filming the major scenes in a refugee camp we recreated with 1,000 extras was the same day the young Syrian refugee boy washed ashore in Greece,” she said.
“This story sends a warning that in this current time of the politics of division and hate... there will be tragic consequences.”
The movie, which stars Hugh Bonneville — of Downton Abbey — as Mountbatten, has had mixed reviews, with some critics accusing Chadha of being too soft on Britain.
Indian film critic Raja Sen in his review called it “an embarrassment, with or without its childish attempts at pro-empire revisionism”.
Gupta said Viceroy’s House was likely to appeal more to an audience outside India that did not have a direct stake in the tragedies of partition.
“Historical films help to explain things to the diaspora around the world, as well as [to] third- and fourth-generation immigrants who have only heard stories, who are also looking for a visual memory of those days,” he said.
Two Hindi films about the era have already been released this year, though neither was a box-office hit.
Raag Desh deals with the armed rebel group set up under British rule by the Indian nationalist Subhash Chandra Bose, who broke ranks with independence champion Mahatma Gandhi over his non-violent approach.
Begum Jaan explored the impact of partition through the fictional story of a brothel that fell right on the new border.
In the week that India and Pakistan mark 70 years of independence, Chadha said such movies served as a reminder of the horrors of that era.
“I want people to be talking about partition, whatever their perspective, so we can ensure tragedies like this don’t happen again,” she said.