History in film

That Indian woman photographing Mountbatten in ‘Viceroy’s House’? It’s probably Homai Vyarawalla

India’s first female photojournalist makes a fleeting appearance in Gurinder Chadha’s movie about Indian independence and the Partition.

Gurinder Chadha’s new movie Viceroy’s House is packed with historical detail about the period in which it set. The August 18 release focuses on the days before and immediately after the birth of a free (and partitioned) India, and plays out largely in the official residence of Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of colonial India. The movie is also being released in a Hindi dubbed version in India under the title Partition: 1947.

Viceroy’s House shows Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) arriving with their daughter at their palatial home (which came to be known as Rashtrapati Bhawan after Independence). Apart from officiating at dinners and parties, they receive numerous heavyweight guests, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Their meetings are captured for posterity by news photographers, one of whom is a woman and appears to be modelled on Homai Vyarawalla.

The khadi sari-wearing character is stockier and has a slightly different hair style from Vyarawalla, but she is the only woman among the press corps – which was also the case with Vyarawalla, the first female photojournalist in India and an inspirational figure for women who have chosen to make photojournalism their profession.

Viceroy's House. Image credit: Pathe/BBC Films.
Viceroy's House. Image credit: Pathe/BBC Films.

Vyarawalla began her career in Delhi in the early 1940s and captured several key events of pre-independent and post-independent India. “She was employed by the British Information Services that required her to follow important ‘dignitaries’ as she called them, and yes, of course, she photographed the Mountbattens extensively,” said Sabeena Gadihoke, a professor at Jamia Millia Islamia University and the author of the biography India in Focus Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla. Among Vyarawalla’s photographs of the period is an image of the British couple sitting on the ground at Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation.

Vyarawalla quit her profession in 1970 after the death of her husband and colleague, Maneckshaw. She eventually settled down in Vadodara, where she lived until her death on January 15, 2012. She was 98 years old.

Vyarawalla’s photographs have been donated to the Alkazi Foundation, and Gadihoke’s book is a richly detailed account of her fabulous life. She is part of the scenery in Viceroy’s House, but her life story deserves its own biopic.

Homai Vyarawalla. Image credit: The Alkazi Foundation.
Homai Vyarawalla. Image credit: The Alkazi Foundation.
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