End of empire: why Bollywood needs to grasp India’s story

Bollywood  Seven decades after independence, Indian cinema is still struggling to depict the Raj, leaving its screen depictions – from Gandhi to colonial racism – to be viewed almost solely through British eyes

 The end … director Gurinder Chadha’s new film Viceroy’s House. Photograph: Kerry Monteen/Bend It Films/Pathe

Bollywood

In 1968, 20 years after Indian independence and partition, producer-director duo Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas released Carry On Up the Khyber in British cinemas. It was a raunchy, imperialistic romp, set against the backdrop of the Raj – the British colonial rule in India that lasted till 1947.

Looking back, the Carry On humor hasn’t dated well. Not only is the sexist slap-and-tickle at odds with modern sensibilities but the film is awash with casual racism. Bernard Bresslaw and Kenneth Williams “brown-up” to play the not-so-hilariously named Bungdit Din and the Khasi of Khalabar, while Sidney James yak-yak-yaks away with his lustful eyes fixed on buxom Brits dressed in saris.

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On 15 August, India will have been 70 years free of British rule. A fledgling age for a country, but one that has long been the subject of British cinema, from directors of both Indian-British and white-British backgrounds. The racial stereotypes of carrying On Up the Khyber would never make it screen today, although browning up isn’t so distant a memory – the late Christopher Lee did play Pakistan’s founder Jinnah as recently as 1998. Depictions of the Raj and the independence and partitioning of India have evolved, as much as the constraints of a period drama will allow. But how far have they come since the seismic events of 1947 that led to independence?

Indian-born British actor Roshan Seth is a good person to tell you. With over 40 years’ film experience, he’s seen first-hand how cinema has changed the way it represents India’s post-colonial history.

 Cinema history … Roshan Seth as Nehru, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi and Alyque Padamsee as Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, 1982. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia

Seth is best known for his role in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi as the first prime minister of India, Nehru, and two years later as Chattar Lal in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Since Gandhi, Seth has had a steady career on the big and small screen, as well as on stage, and will soon be appearing alongside Riz Ahmed in City of Tiny Lights. To Seth, Gandhi remains a career highlight, even though his friend Salman Rushdie, author of Midnight’s Children, hated the film. Seth still refers to it as the “jewel in the crown”, of his career, when on the phone to me from New Delhi.

Seth says that most Indians, himself included, squirm at representations of the British experience in India, but he appreciates that telling stories about their own country from a British perspective is difficult for actors of Indian heritage.

Recently, Seth was speaking with Stephen Frears about his next film Victoria and Abdul, a period drama based on the book by Sharbani Basu. Frears had turned to Seth for advice on who should play Abdul Karim, an attendant to Queen Victoria in the final years of her reign. Seth subsequently spoke with the Bollywood actor Ali Fazal, who was eventually cast in the role. But Fazal felt “confused” by the process of working in the east and the west. “The confusion of the Indian performer in cinema, who wishes to become a better professional, is yearning for the openings in the west and still wanting a foot in the east, and the two don’t mix.”

This view stems in part from Seth’s disapproval of the way Bollywood operates. He believes that opportunities for Indians working in the west are incompatible with a career in the east, notwithstanding a few success stories such as Irrfan Khan, the late Om Puri, and more recently Deepika Padukone.

Seth mentions Indian Summersa period drama he starred in for Channel 4. “In many respects, that encapsulates my life – torn between two cultures, not knowing where to go.” For him, productions that deal with this period need “sensitive and good writing” above all.

We come on to Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, the team that had a long-standing collaboration with Academy Award winner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The trio created some of the most memorable films set during the British occupation of India but didn’t directly depict the events of independence. Most famous was the final film of David Lean, A Passage to India, based on the novel by EM Forster. From the conversation with Seth, it is easy to understand the confusion for actors of Indian and Pakistani heritage operating between two different worlds, and then also the inherent embarrassment of the British identity that feels the shame of empire, mixed with a distorted, deeply problematic nostalgia for a bygone era when Britannia ruled the waves.

Gandhi

Gandhi is the pre-eminent example of a landmark film that aimed to depict the life of India’s most important figure, and the final days of the Raj, in a balanced and nuanced light. Attenborough had shown an interest in the history of India and had already appeared in Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film The Chess Players, as a British general attempting to swindle another state into putting itself under the yoke of the Empire. Gandhi was unapologetic in its depiction of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre; Nehru died before seeing the film but had hoped Alec Guinness would play the role which eventually went to Ben Kingsley. Extras playing troopers at the siege of Lucknow in The Chess Players. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

That was 1982. Since then there hasn’t been a film that attempts to wrestle with the period on the same scale – until next month that is when British director Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House opens in cinemas across the country.

For Chadha, who is of Punjabi descent, it’s a deeply personal story: “I strongly believe that if we don’t write our own histories then they will be lost. I wanted to make a film for everybody that tells the story of our shared history, in the style of the films I grew up loving, the British historical epic,” she explains, fully aware that her film will elicit many comparisons with GandhiBut for her, it was important that Indian characters would not be marginalized, and would have equal screen time with the white members of the cast.

Chadha is aware of the poor track record of British films when it comes to portraying Indians with realism and dignity. “I attended a demo [in the 1980s] at the GLC because the shooting was going on for the TV series The Last Viceroy. The actor Ian Richardson had browned up to play Nehru and the scenes where he was trying to seduce Edwina Mountbatten (Janet Suzman) were appalling.” Chadha believes that those days are over, yet also says that because there are so few films about this period, it’s impossible to say if times have changed or not. She is optimistic for the future, however. “What is certainly true is that there are many writers and film-makers now who have personal connections and their own perspectives on British history and that should lead to stories which present different narratives of our shared history,” she says.

Gillian Anderson and Hugh Bonneville, center right, as Lord and Lady Mountbatten in Viceroy’s House. Photograph: Kerry Monteen/Bend It Films/Pathe

Meanwhile, Chadha wants to make sure she sets a new benchmark in presenting the final days of the Raj this time: “When I started writing the script for Viceroy’s House eight years ago, I knew I was taking on a tradition of Raj films where Indian characters were normally seen as part of the furniture – extras who rarely spoke. In my film, I wanted to show that the lives of the Indian staff downstairs mattered just as much as the politicians debating partition upstairs.” She also notes, “It’s a painful period of British history to look at. There are no easy answers and no black and white villains.”

Now, 70 years since independence and partition – the creation of Pakistan and the effective end of the empire – depictions of India in British cinema have evolved, but not with great urgency. As Chadha notes, if films telling the full story of India’s transition from colonialism to independence don’t get made, the conversations will never be had, and the history will be lost. British cinema and film-makers need the opportunity to tell these stories anew before it’s too late.

This article was amended on 22 February. The original suggested the Nehru enjoyed the 1982 movie Gandhi; in fact, he died in 1964. This has been corrected.