The portrayal of historical events in film is by no means a novelty, for not only does it serve as a foundation for imaginative storytelling but also enables the public to access history in a recreational way. However, as the line between creative license and historical accuracy becomes blurred it does draw into question…how far filmmakers have a responsibility to be historically accurate?
In 2015 the film Suffragette directed by Sarah Gavron hit cinemas. The film depicts the frustrations of a fictionalised character called Maud (played by Carey Mulligan) who is drawn to the movement after observations of the inequity between men and women that she sees in her day-to-day life working in a laundrette. The film is successful in its portrayal, albeit fictional, of a working-class woman exercising agency within a political movement. Big characters within the actual movement such as Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) are barely featured in the film, perhaps by way of portraying characters who otherwise would not have had their stories told in the re-telling of history. However, we would be doing a disservice to the women from the South Asian diaspora if not to recognise the way in which this film perpetuates the exclusion of non-white people, particularly women, from popular history.
Sophia Duleep Singh was a princess of the Punjab, the Goddaughter of Queen Victoria, and would have been the closest figure we would have to a modern-day celebrity. Despite all this, she remains absent from popular discourse. After a trip in 1906 to India, Sophia’s rebel spirit was ignited and she found her cause in The WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union). The group, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, believed that the only way women could exercise control in their lives and society at large would be if they had a political voice. On what became known to be Black Friday (18th November 1910), after the Prime Minister had blocked the Conciliation Bill, shocking scenes of police brutality against the suffragettes ensued. In the aftermath of the rejected bill and police brutality, Mrs Pankhurst and a dozen of the most famous and celebrated suffragettes marched on parliament – of which Sophia was a part. Sophia’s background, affiliations and status marching ahead of other women was viewed as highly provocative.
On 30th December 1913 Princess Sophia was summoned to a magistrate’s court to face prosecution as she refused to pay her taxes. As an avid supporter of the tax resistance league within the Suffragettes, she refused to contribute financially to a state which would not grant her the vote. In an impassioned speech she said, “When the women are enfranchised, and the state acknowledges me as a citizen, I shall of course pay my share willingly towards its upkeep – if I am not a fit person for the purpose of representation, why am I a fit person for taxation?” In 1928 women over the age of twenty-one were given the right to vote, and this right was afforded to us through the acts of women like Sophia Duleep Singh- so why then is she not as known and celebrated as she should be?
Historian Anita Anand gives several reasons for this. One being that several suffragette names overshadow others because some literally risked their lives to the cause. Despite her repeated advocacy and efforts, Sophia was never sent to prison and this may be due to her rank in society. Grand narratives often have a habit of reporting on the extreme and therefore sweep away nuanced details. Moreover, despite all she had done, Sophia never sought glory or credit. When asked to contribute to her entry in the 1934 edition of a magazine entitled Women’s Who’s Who, under ‘interests’ she appears to have only contributed one line: ‘The Advancement of Women’.
On 19th February 2018, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan highlighted Sophia Duleep Singh under the hashtag #HiddenCredits and acknowledged her vital role in the suffragette movement. The absence of Princess Sophia in the film Suffragette is typical within the trend of white washing and erasure within films. Though one could argue that her absence from the film may not have been done with malicious intent, I believe that filmmakers have a responsibility to not perpetuate the idea that women of colour are inactive agents within history’s major turning points. Through exclusion, film makers do not exercise their influence to challenge popular misconceptions but rather adhere to the idea that history is written by the privileged. Though one could assert that the portrayal of Maud is a step in the right direction, it is not enough. Maud’s depiction versus Princess Sophia’s absence shows how class, race, and gender intersect for the marginalisation of history.
In times where history departments across the country are actively seeking ways to decolonise the curriculum, perhaps the same efforts need to be made in film in active and intentional ways. In our globalised world bringing to the fore the voices, actions, and contributions of those who through no fault of their own, have been relegated to the margins of history, is a worthwhile cause.
‘Sophia: Suffragette Princess- Princess Sophia Duleep Singh’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dAH0MLNfK1U
Anita Anand Sophia: Princess, Sufragette, Revolutionary (London, 2015)