A still from Victoria and Abdul

A still from Victoria and Abdul

There is much to commend in this sumptuous and nuanced portrait of the true story of an unexpected friendship in the later years of Queen Victoria’s rule. Her friend is Abdul Karim, a young clerk from India who travels to London in 1887 to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and unexpectedly finds favor with the Queen.

The film is based on the book Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu, a London-based writer who was born in Calcutta.

Shrabani’s work was based on first-hand archival research of the Queen’s journals and her Hindustani journals as well as some letters which had escaped destruction.
I had met Shrabani when she was in the Bay Area promoting her book and she graciously agreed to respond to questions exclusively for India Currents readers. When asked about the surprisingly endearing portrait of a vulnerable side to the formidable Queen Victoria, Srabani responded that she had been researching the history of curries when she stumbled upon this story. “Queen Victoria learnt Urdu from Abdul Karim and ordered that curries be cooked in the royal kitchens every day. Her favourite curries were chicken curry and dal.”

The credits for the film reveal one jewel in the crown after another. Director Stephen Frears, whose 1985 My Beautiful Laundrette cemented his South Asian credentials in the minds of film historians, reveals his consummate artistry in the loving care with which the subject matter is treated. But it is Dame Judi Dench as the imperious monarch who steals the show.

In the beginning of the film, we see her approach her royal duties with ennui. There is no sparkle in her eyes. She slurps her soup with no pleasure. Her royal colon, she is told, needs more roughage. Her demeanor appears to convey that she is simply not amused. Enter Abdul Karim, fresh off the boat. “It was quite easy to imagine how Victoria, by then cross and a bit tired, suddenly looked up and saw somebody at last to talk to and somebody at last pleasing to look at. He came to the Golden Jubilee to present her with a coin, but, seeing him, she wasn’t so interested in the coin,” offers Judy Dench on the Queen’s transformation.

There is much to commend in this sumptuous and nuanced portrait of the true story of an unexpected friendship in the later years of Queen Victoria’s rule. Her friend is Abdul Karim, a young clerk from India who travels to London in 1887, and unexpectedly he finds favor with her.

Ali Fazal, fresh from his role in Fukrey, is playful and decidedly flirtatious as Abdul Karim. In an exclusive interview with India Currents, Ali Fazal says of his character: “Abdul Kareem was an opportunist. He was young, he was ambitious. She asks him to serve her. To be her friend. To be by her side. And then, of course, the relationship took another turn and lasted thirteen years.”

I quizzed Ali Fazal on the dynamics of his relationship with a powerful older woman. Is this a spiritual meeting of the soul? An autumn-spring romance? Abdul literally kisses Victoria’s feet, both at the beginning and the end of the film, but do these bookends speak of reverence or of servitude?

“It’s confusing. I still remember reading the letters. It’s amazing how she would sign off. One of them would say: “From a loving mother to her son, another one other one would say “The Queen misses her Munshi. Come back, my friend, soon.” And yet another would say: ”Come back. Hold me tight.” And those are very strong words, and very intimate words, for a monarch to use.”

Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria

Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria

Is his character the “good Muslim?” By contrast, Abdul’s compatriot Mohammed, played by Adeel Akhtar, is far more critical and oppositional to the “savages,” the British empire and its rulers. Ali Fazal’s response was that “Mohammed mirrors the mood of the audience, and that of India at the time, which, in 1887, was just coming out of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny” (referred to as the First Indian War of Independence by Indian historians).

Certainly, it’s a good thing for Abdul to have the backing of a monarch, but we see that there are limits even to the power of the all-powerful Queen Victoria. “Most formidable in his opposition to Abdul growing so close to the Queen is her son Bertie, Prince of Wales—who was next in line for the throne and who would become King Edward VII.” A revolt is brewing in the members of her household and her staff are all atwitter (yes, that was a word before it became Trump’s preferred social media outlet). As Victoria and Abdul humorously explore questions of race, religion, power, and the farce of Empire through the prism of this highly unusual and deeply moving friendship, I found myself in turn intrigued and enchanted.

Perhaps, I thought, one day I too will travel to London. I will visit the V and A Museum. V for Victoria. A for Albert. Or was it Abdul?

EQ: A

VICTORIA AND ABDUL. Director: Stephen Frears. Screenwriter: Lee Hall, based on book by Shrabani Basu. Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Tim Pigott-Smith and Michael Gambon. Focus Features, 2017. MPAA Rating: PG-13

Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Critic of India Currents.

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