What exactly is going on in Gurinder Chadha’s pre-independence Indian epic TV show and why did nobody stop it?
In the opening scene of Gurinder Chadha’s Beecham House, a lone White man in a hippie-style costume rides a horse down a picturesque dirt road. Gunshots and shouts echo through the ochre countryside. The man, his brow sensitively furrowed, leaps from his horse and grabs a gun from the holster on the saddle. He rushes forward to investigate. Three indistinguishable Brown people — one a woman in a pink veil, another a man in the bedazzled turban of some kind of maharaja, and the third in the face-obscuring headwrap of a bandit — grapple beside a golden carriage. The White man looks for a moment, cocks his gun, and fires. The bandit falls to the ground. The Indian man with the richly jeweled turban gawks in wonder. The woman — women? — remain silent. The picture cuts to opening credits, then a title: “3 Years Later.”
The White man is John Beecham, half cowboy, half anachronistic social justice warrior, and all white savior. Stalking bare-chested into the Indian scrub with a machete in episode one, he says, “there is not a single day that I miss being a soldier but I miss the sweat.”
Over the course of the first couple episodes, when not saving Brown people from themselves, Beecham is really, really busy trying to convince everyone in the show — including himself — that despite the fact that he’s occupying a country whose citizens would prefer he depart, is profiting from Indian trade goods, and is lording it over an enormous household of Indian servants, he is a hero worth rooting for. He prefers daal-chawal to Western food, he says, and he wants to establish trade that benefits both Indians and Britishers. He thanks his Indian servants in Hindi, and he quit the East India Company because he didn’t agree with the Company’s cruel and imperialist policies.
Beecham House has been described as the “Downton Abbey” of India. And perhaps that description will render the show’s shortcomings legible: Downton Abbey had a great deal to say about class relations in historical England, none of it particularly impressive. The show presented its exploitative overlords, the aristocratic Granthams, as generous and likable, their classist extractions as lovable, fixable foibles. As if individual generosity — suspect in such a context to begin with — could somehow overcome or entirely elide the problems of the utterly rotten social system that guaranteed the Granthams’ pre-eminence in the first place.
Beecham House takes that same brush and paints it over the entire exercise of fucking colonialism. It’s 2020. Who asked for this? Remember that meme from ages ago?
PBS: Beecham House.
“Don’t judge me by my flag,” Beecham tells an Indian king in episode one. Neither John Beecham the character nor the show’s creators seem particularly concerned that “judging people by their flag” is the foundation upon which the edifice of colonialism rests, and that Beecham — a British White man in India in the days of the Raj — can no more opt out of it than can the millions of Indians who’d rather be ruling their own fucking country.
In the interest, I can only imagine, of leaving no turd unturned, the show ends with a glimpse of a White man surrounded by dusky-skinned Indian women in veils and midriff-baring skirts, dancing for his pleasure.
Start to finish, this show is an Orientalist fantasy. It plays to stereotypes and tropes about Indians — the backbiting and politicking servants, the arrogant but beautiful queens, the opulent maharajas — while doing nothing to examine them. It uplifts and celebrates its colonizers, while presenting Brown people merely as props to illustrate Beecham’s nobility.
And truth be told, I would not have expected better, except that the director is a person of South Asian descent. Gurinder Chadha previously directed Bend it Like Beckham. For all the film’s flaws, it was radical, in 2002, to see a nerdy Brown girl from a conservative Indian family not only play professional sports but get a steamy on-screen romance with a hot love interest. There is, of course, a whole genre of justifiable criticism of films that present White folks as the pinnacle of desire. But if Beckham was a fantasy, it was one that centered Brown girls in a way that mainstream British films usually didn’t, and it resonated with that audience in part because Chadha was speaking to an experience she likely directly knew and deeply understood.
Meanwhile, Chadha has a history of making bad TV about colonial India. Before Beecham House, there was Viceroy’s House, a Chadha-directed film set during Indian independence and focused on the political wrangling surrounding the Partition of India. Viceroy’s House features Hugh Bonneville (literally, Lord Grantham) as a well-intentioned, hapless Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. Sent to India to negotiate Britain’s departure, Mountbatten finds himself duped by his own government into implementing a hasty plan to divide the country along religious lines. Chadha’s version of events is that Mountbatten wanted the best for India, but the British government drew the boundaries of India and Pakistan in advance in part to protect Middle Eastern oil from Soviet advancement. It’s unclear exactly why Chadha is so eager to let Mountbatten off the hook for his part in Partition’s horrors. This is a man who, according to Pankaj Mishra in The New Yorker, was nicknamed the “Master of Disaster” by his own military colleagues, and whose inexplicable decision to advance the timeline for Partition by nine whole months was “partly to blame for the disasters that followed.” In the midst of widespread sectarian violence following the announcement, Mountbatten ordered British soldiers to protect only British lives. While Chadha’s is an interesting theory, the actual historical evidence for it seems limited. Meanwhile, there’s more than enough room in the popular narrative to present both Churchill and Mountbatten as villains.
Fatima Bhutto, writing in the Guardian, called the film “servile” and noted that “the psychological damage wrought by colonialism festers deeply among some south Asians.”
Yikes. Also, fair. I’d even argue that colonialism festers among many, possibly most South Asians, and in our society writ large. The twin ideologies of racial and religious supremacy that enabled the British to dominate India for 300 years didn’t appear overnight, and weren’t limited to the British. And while it hurts to say this about a fellow South Asian person, I don’t think that the lingering ideology of colonialism can entirely excuse what’s going on here — after all, plenty of great writers have managed to work through it.
Fantasies uplift, but they also obscure. In presenting Mountbatten and — later — John Beecham as heroes, Chadha does the exact opposite of what she achieved in Beckham. She presents a version of the story that obscures actual events, and to no one’s real benefit. I can’t help but believe that audiences would have welcomed a more authentic and honest film. Yes, Chadha is partly to blame for this wreck — especially since she has a pattern of it — but so are the people who greenlit this TV series. Did no one else, in the studio when the first cut of this show was pulled together, think, hold on, we may have grabbed the wrong end of the stick with this one?