Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon
Director: Stephen Frears
An Indian actor sharing screen space with another Hollywood big star is rare, even though in the current scenario, we see a host of talented actors like Nawazuddin, Irrfan, Priyanka Chopra, to name a few, earning a pride of place in the coveted world of international cinema. But it’s even odder to see an Asian character (we presume all Abduls are Indians, but that may not be true!) and his name being used in the title itself. Victoria and Abdul, thus, makes many of us, sit up and take note of Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, on whose book this film is based, and tells us about the story of the friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul Karim. On the surface, it sounds fake as many of us will wonder: “How can it be true?” More so, since a large chunk of Indians have been fed on only the atrocities perpetrated by the British on the Indians that history abounds. Is it then, a fantasy? Far from it, as both British and Indian historians have written about somewhat of a bonding between two odd people, that too at a time when the two nations were two diametrically opposite sides. In fact, the two were considered not just archenemies but also two sides of societal divide — the nobility and the low subjects.
We would have got a real insight into their unusual relationship had director Stephen Frears given us an untold story that hitherto was not made public. Unfortunately, as this film turns out to be, when we see Abdul getting transported — both literally and figuratively — into a world he would otherwise never dare to inhabit, we get to see only a superficial Abdul and his journey into the British monarch, as per the book. The overall layering of Victoria’s close friendship with an Indian servant, who was sent to the court with the sole task of offering a gift of a ceremonial coin, remains somewhat unaddressed in the film. Why on earth something as trivial an incident as the Queen (Judi Dench) being so considerate and concerned about a servant be made into a film? The two-hour film makes us believe that it was simply meaningless. The man at the centre, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), thus remains a blank canvas. We don’t get to know his real motives, or what kind of a life he led as a husband. In fact, we only get to know of one character of the title — Victoria and Abdul — while all along tarrying hard to discover the other one through the first!
For instance, what are Abdul’s views on colonialism, of English state-sponsored brutality towards his countrymen? It does add some anti-colonial satire once in a while offering from the sidelines the tale of unorthodox affection between the now-septuagenarian Queen and a devoted underling, but since her era is ridden with sexual repression, any reference to her sudden interest in the opposite sex looks like her having a fountain of emotions. Is there sexual energy at play when the Empress Victoria, who rules India too, looks for Abdul? Or, is she merely being maternal? He, a Muslim commoner, is young enough to be her grandson, doesn’t think anything beyond nobility condescending to grand him special favours?
Some of the interesting bits could have been made more detailed. Like for instance, Abdul introducing Victoria to Indian foods, language and other customs of India, could have contrasted her own beliefs and habits to give us more meaningful conversations between the two lead players. When she declares him to be her Munshim or as the common parlance suggests, a teacher even as her son Bertie the future King Edward VII and various minions and officials Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) and Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith) ridicule her, not much is known about Abdul’s reactions or even Victoria’s, for that matter. Dench as the queen is a delight to watch. Every scene she is a part of, is owned by her: one doesn’t look anywhere else while she performs. Fazal looks charming and that’s about it. The fact that he is unsure of the overriding affection by the queen for him is documented by him well, but he suffers from a half-baked role. Throughout, he remains a mystery!
The writer is a film critic and has been reviewing films for over 15 years. He also writes on music, art and culture, and other human interest stories....