However, it is also about the extreme disadvantages for one man of finding favour in the service of the nineteenth centuries and one of England’s longest serving monarchs, Alexandrina Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and from 1876, Empress of India.
The story of Victoria and Abdul came to light in 2010. Until that time virtually any trace of Hafiz Mohammed Abdul Karim, CIE, CVO and his position in the royal household, had been all but extinguished from the royal archives, such was the climate of fear and jealousy he provoked among the aristocratic household and court members surrounding the Queen during his time spent in England.
Prince Albert and all the men in her life influenced Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and her reign. They included the politicians Lord Melbourne and Benjamin Disraeli, as well as John Brown, her faithful Scottish servant whose friendship with his sovereign was considered a scandalous liaison at court.
Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg had been the love of Queen Victoria’s life, as well as the first of many men she admired. After he died tragically aged only 42, everyone had tried hard to please the Queen, who was devastated.
The great guilt affected many people because so many in both the government and Royal household knew His Highness was overworked but did not offer to help him. ‘We did not know until he was gone’, lamented the Morning Star, ‘how much we prized and loved him’.
Thanks to the tenacity of author Shrabani Basu we now also have Abdul Karim to add to the list of men, whose story adds yet another astonishing layer to the richly woven tapestry of Queen Victoria’s life. History it seems still has many surprises for us yet to discover.
Visiting Osborne, Victoria and Albert’s home on the Isle of Wight, Basu became fascinated by images of a young Indian man. Especially a captivating portrait by artist Rudolf Swoboda painted 1888 of a young Indian man looking pensive, or is it tentative.
Collectively the images alerted Ms Basu there was a lot more going on and sensing an interesting story, she went on a quest to find out who he was and why he was at court in the first place. She discovered Queen Victoria isolated at the top, at least until Abdul Karim happened along.
Don’t Read Any More if You Don’t Want Spoilers.
Timing is everything… and Abdul (Ali Fazal) arrives in England four years after John Brown’s demise. By then Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) was lonely, desolate and had to be gathered up out of bed every morning by a litany of servants.
They then dressed the royal personage and pressed her into service all day. She attended appointment after appointment like a robot without interest until late in the day when she went back to bed to rest to start all over again. She did not have any light or love seemingly left in her life.
It had almost been snuffed out of her and her wastrel son and heir Bertie (Edward VII – Eddie Izzard), the then Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (Michael Gambon) and her private secretary Lord Henry Ponsoby (Tim Piggott-Smith) who ran the royal household, were all more or less waiting for her, along with everyone else, to die.
Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) was a young Indian clerk of 24 when he was sent from Agra (The Taj Mahal is there) to England. He was tall, good looking and knew all about the Queen’s carpets at Windsor as he had helped choose them… as well as so much more. He arrived in London along with another Indian the very short Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), who had to replace another chosen tall Indian who had become ill.
They were tasked to present Her Majesty with a special coin from the Indian people on the occasion of the great dinner held to celebrate her golden jubilee. Abdul the taller of the two (and handsome) is required to carry the coin on a silver tray. He is also forbidden to look at Her Majesty. Mohammed just tags along… in fact his role in proceedings is perhaps the most tragic by far.
The banquet itself is the most brilliant and lavish of scenes. You need to know and understand that while the Queen is eating everyone else can do so. But when her plate is removed, yours must be too. So there is a race to eat what you can while you can, otherwise you will leave the banquet starving.
Dressed hastily by a tailor in the household in pseudo romantically styled Indian outfits, Abdul and Mohammed are shown into the great dining hall, having to walk the length of the dining room table, which seated a multitude, in order for Abdul to make the presentation.
As he is backing away Abdul cannot resist sneaking a quick peek at the monarch. Catching the Queen’s eye his curiosity changes both their lives, as well as that of his travelling companion Mohammed’s life, forever.
The greatest gift to this story is Dame Judi Dench who once again takes the lead as Queen Victoria, this time aged, 73. Within a very short while at court Abdul has become her Munshi (Teacher), gaining both her trust and a prestigious position in her household.
She feels enthusiastic again, eagerly wanting to learn more about India, the languages, the religion, the colour, the cities and the countryside. Now she has someone on her staff with first hand knowledge to teach her and she’s completely overjoyed. She is after all, Empress of India… if she wants to taste a Mango why can’t she?
Seeing the older Queen reminiscent of the feisty young Victoria who on the day she came to the throne, demanded she be allowed a bedroom of her own and not have to sleep in her mother’s bed ever again, was for me somehow comforting.
Abdul has an added advantage to his youth for that of being ‘exotic’… good looking to a fault, tall and with large heavenly brown eyes, all the better to see Her Majesty with.
And she responds, after all she is deep down a woman who loves flattery and as their friendship grows and deepens, the Queen begins to see a rapidly changing world through his eyes.
She is brilliantly cantankerous and caring and you cannot help but admire her tenacity.
She gets a new spring in her step as she and Abdul develop a passionate-platonic kind of friendship, one that got on everyone else’s nerves and indeed, quite under their skin.
Abdul doesn’t hesitate to take up all the opportunities placed at his disposal while he helps her reclaim her humanity and once again enjoy some happiness.
During the whole time Abdul Kamir is in England, everyone at court becomes dedicated to putting the Munshi back in the place where they believed he belongs. They spy on him daily, listening at key holes and following he and the Queen whenever they have a turn in the garden.
It is an obsession that is unhealthy in the extreme and inspires truly awful behaviour, like the Queen’s physician using his stethoscope to listen to conversation going on behind closed doors.
The British claimed they were ‘enlightened’ at this time and we are left in no doubt they believe they are in every way superior to everyone. The movie highlights the worst aspects of colonialism at the height of its powers.
The people surrounding the Queen certainly all work hard to keep Abdul from rising above his station, a popular British concept at the time, one still affecting life in Australia when I was growing up.
When Abdul is subjected to racial abuse and called a ‘commoner’ Queen Victoria reprimands her children for their lack of respect for a man who has risen on his own merits.
Abdul Karim serves the Queen he grows to admire selflessly and loyally 1892–1901, despite the protectors of the ‘great class divide’ trying to put him down. There is a point in the movie where the household attempts to blackmail the Queen with threat of mass resignation if she awards Abdul with a knighthood.
Ordering them assembled in her new Indian ‘Durbar Room’ she takes them all head on herself, demanding they resign to her personally if they wish to leave her service.
Her son and the hierarchy threaten to have her committed as insane causing her to give a speech that will have you cheering in the aisles if you hate prejudice as much as I do.
Dame Judi inhabits the role of the Queen as if it is a second skin. For all intents and purposes, she is Queen Victoria. Feeling real fear’ when taking on a part, Dame Judi believes keeps her on her mettle and this movie is all about the fear of difference, something we are talking about here in Australia right now.
Abdul taught the ‘Empress of India to speak and how to write in Erdu and Hindi, gaining her affection to the point he was the final person given the honour of seeing her laid out instate before they placed her in a coffin for the funeral, where he was also seated alongside the dignitaries.
The extraordinary level of ill-feeling generated by the handsome Muslim within hours of his mother’s funeral saw her son, now King Edward VII, unceremoniously sack Abdul and order that all the images and records of their relationship in India and the United Kingdom be destroyed. It is a vindictive act, one not worthy of either a monarch or leader.
Abdul returned to India to a sizeable estate and an annuity the Queen had purchased and provided for him, not trusting anyone to look after him and his family when she had gone.
She proved herself wise at every turn and there is no doubt he suffered because of his liaison with her, something that happened over a momentary decision to meet her eyes and to offer her a smile.
Members of Abdul’s family living with him in his compound kept Abdul’s diaries about the Queen and his friendship after his death in 1909 aged only 46.
They were taken back to India by Mr Karim and his nephew, Abdul Rashid after their dismissal from the royal household and, they were in turn sneaked out of India to Pakistan forty years later when his family migrated during the violence at the time of partition.
Shrabani Basu started her book unearthed by research of the Queen’s actual ‘Erdu’ journal that had remained in the archives of The Royal Collection and unread for over 100 years.
Victoria and Abdul the film is a reflection of its times.
The entries in the Queen’s journal are apparently extensive, and the author has given interviews that reveal just how much Victoria cared about her friend and his family.
She discovered the journal told an extraordinary story… the Queen practicing her Erdu when she was alone actually wrote about the delights of her day, her friendship with Abdul and caring for his family in a language seemingly the people in charge of her archives since have just ignored.
Abdul Karim’s diaries also remained intact. They detail his years in London between Queen Victoria’s golden and diamond jubilees. A surviving family member in India read about Ms Basu’s book in a local newspaper and wrote to inform the author about the diaries being kept by another branch of the family in Karachi. When she duly tracked them down, she set about updating her book.
The British record as a colonial power is not very uplifting and this is a nostalgic visually sumptuous period piece, whose background story is easily glossed over.
History reveals the British exploited India and its citizens, plundering its resources and creating unprecedented poverty, so much so that when the country was in peril from two incidents of extreme famine, millions of people died.
Mohammed after sharing his companion’s adventures would die in England, not having been offered any help throughout an illness brought on by the severe cold. However not before deliciously telling the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister and the Head of the Royal Household Lord Ponsoby where they could go. You will want to cheer yet again.
Judi Dench’s acting performance is outstanding, she really is an awesome actor. Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim understatedly and with care plays the man who seemingly developed a real affection for this woman who was part mother and friend, although for me the feet kissing became just a point too far.
His and the distinguished supporting cast excel in their roles which are underwritten.
I left feeling I would have liked them rounded out more, particularly that of Abdul’s beleaguered friend Mohammed who became a scapegoat for his friend and his fate.
Victoria offered Abdul opportunities in life he would never have imagined in his job as a clerk in a prison back at home. While there were plusses he had to put up with all the prejudice and hatred levelled at him by a bunch of snobs and stuffed shirts, his ability to survive and thrive says a lot about his patience, fortitude and self-control.
The Director treats the goings on around Victoria and Abdul as a comedy at first and it is hard not to be charmed, especially by Simon Callow as the great opera composer, Giacomo Puccini.
Bertie, as King Edward VII, burned all the letters the Queen had written to Abdul and photographs of them together. However from the grave she triumphs at a time when we need someone to teach the world about what a real friendship is.
The performances are defining and the big positive perhaps is that this unlikely pairing in history proved a Muslim and a Christian can be very good friends if they choose to be.
It’s not easy though and it does show how hard they work on their relationship, even following a quarrel, as indeed we all need to do with everyone in our own family, friends and community circles. People are after all, just people.
On the whole, Victoria and Abdul is a very sad story, despite its aim to enchant and dazzle with lots of glitz and glamour, I have to say came away feeling strangely unsettled.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Watch The Trailer
VICTORIA AND ABDUL (PG)
Director: Stephen Frears (Philomena)
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams