Film: Victoria & Abdul
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Piggot-Smith, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Robin Soans, Sukh Ojla
Director: Stephen Frears
Truth is stranger than fiction. Victoria and Abdul is the story of how good luck and charm propelled a lowly clerk from Agra into the rarefied echelons of British aristocracy. The royal household, no less.
Based on a book of the same name by Shrabani Basu, Frear’s film reboots the curious attachment between Victoria, Queen of England and Empress of India and her “munshi” Abdul Karim which left the royal household aghast.
Basu’s source material were Abdul’s personal diaries which should not be treated as gospel truth in my humble opinion. That said, the issue of just how authentic the close relationship between aged ruler and young (24-year-old) subject can be set aside to enjoy this lavishly produced, beautifully acted biopic laced with lashings of comedy and high drama.
Was the 80 plus year old rolled over in bed by her chamber maids? Did she slurp her soup so very noisily? Eat meat with her bare hands? Bird in a gilded cage, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench, in terrific form) is impressed by the “Hindoo” who wilfully breaks protocol by making eye contact with her at a dinner function, and kissing her feet.
Soon enough, he is catapulted from the royal kitchens to being her manservant (the equivalent, well almost, of a lady-in-waiting) and a “munshi” who teaches her Urdu and acquaints her with the real state of the jewel in the crown, the Indian subcontinent. Unsurprisingly, her son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard) and staff attempt to sabotage the relationship with little success.
When her decision to knight Abdul are opposed, the Queen declares she will make him a Commander of the British Empire. Dear me. Knights/CBEs/OBEs are a dime a dozen today, but in the 19th century, it was revolutionary, even scandalous for a “completely common” colonised, non-white subject to be exalted.
The Prince tells his mother she will be certified insane. (A commonly trotted out excuse to deal with the problematic) Her impassioned speech denouncing prejudice and racialism was music to your reviewer’s ears. That sequence and the one where she confides there’s not a day when she doesn’t think of her long-deceased German consort (“It’s been 30 years and I miss him every day. Everyone around me is dead and I just go on and on”) is riveting and proof the redoubtable Dench deserves awards galore.
Equally deserving of an Oscar and a great future in filmdom is Ali Fazal who captivates Queen and viewer with his cultivated charm. That Abdul is something of a trickster cannot be denied. For e.g., he acquaints her with Islam and sufi poetry (Rumi) but doesn’t reveal he has gonorrhea, family in Agra and that the mullahs had passed a fatwa against the Queen. During a discussion on the Taj, Shahjehan is presented in a most favourable light. Abdul also tells the Queen that “life is like a carpet and we all weave in and out of the fabric of one another. “And that the Koran says, “We are here for others.” Shabash! Sadly, ISIS/Taliban are strangers to unity, love and service.