Victoria and Abdul

September 15, 2017
The Monarch and her Munshi
The Monarch and her Munshi

One marvels at the undying appeal of Queen Victoria for latter-day filmmakers. Along with two features: John Madden’s Mrs. Brown (1997) and Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria (2009), there are dozens of movies in which the Dear Old Queen makes an appearance. She’s usually portrayed as a stern but lovable grand dame who strikes an occasional sour note.

Now we have Victoria and Abdul, in which the Empress of India reveals an extraordinary affection for a young man from the subcontinent who would play a significant role in her latter years. It’s another Stephen Frears film that falls prey to its own facility, never delving far beneath the surface of a unique relationship. It’s another film dominated by a strong female lead, in this case, Judi Dench, the reigning matriarch of British cinema, who reprises her performance from Mrs. Brown in an older, tireder, more cynical mode.

Not many people know that in the final phase of her long life, Victoria’s constant companion at court was one Abdul Kareem, a young muslim clerk from Agra, who was chosen to travel to England to present the Queen with a rare coin in honour of her Golden Jubilee.

The meeting with Abdul (Ali Fazal) is our first glimpse of Victoria. Looking grey, bored and sick, she sits at the end of a table during a formal dinner, wolfs down her food and dozes off. She only comes to life when there is a forbidden exchange of glances with the tall, handsome Indian servant who has appeared at her elbow.

As soon as he detects her interest Abdul takes every opportunity to ingratiate himself. It was a process that would be prolonged for almost 15 years. Staying on at court Abdul eschewed the servant’s mantle and gave himself the title of Munshi, which he translates as “teacher” in Urdu.

Abdul is portrayed as a life-saver who restores the Queen’s zest for life, stepping into the quasi-flirtatious role once occuppied by another unacceptable companion, the late John Brown. Dench’s Victoria has an eye for the boys, but is ever conscious of the age difference between herself and her favourites. She poses as a friend and a mother to Abdul, but they are almost as close as Harold and Maude.

It was a passionate-platonic liaison that infuriated Victoria’s household, notably her wastrel son, Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard); and her Private Secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Piggot-Smith). The Queen’s eccentric, perverse fixation soon became a source of irritation, and eventually a threat to the stability of the Court. To the gaggle of royal sycophants the presence of an Indian sycophant was simply intolerable. The British may have been among the more enlightened of colonial powers but they had no doubts about their racial, moral and intellectual superiority over those they governed.

The Munshi caused serious problems in this world view, being allowed familiarities that were unthinkable for Victoria’s British retainers. It seemed preposterous that the Queen should wish to learn Urdu, to hear about the Qur’an and the Taj Mahal, or show any interest in tasting a mango. To the Prince and his colleagues, Abdul was at best an upstart, at worst a con artist.

Bollywood actor, Ali Fazal, leaves both these possibilities on the table. As Abdul he gives little away, smiling sweetly and speaking to the Queen in the most devoted tones. When some incident disturbs his equilibrium he wrinkles his brow and retreats into silence. Without doubt he is a supreme opportunist.

In Ponsonby’s letters he claimed the Munshi was “a thoroughly stupid and uneducated man… his one idea in life seems to be to do nothing and eat as much as he can.”

The cinematic Abdul never says anything of great profundity, but he’s far from stupid when it comes to protecting his own interests. Neither is there any suggestion that his devotion to the Queen was strained or false. On almost all occasions the Munshi shows that remarkable equanimity that is such a feature of the Indian temperament.

One could almost feel sorry for Frears’s cast of flustered snobs and stuffshirts if they didn’t appear in such a deplorable light. We are left in no doubt that the retainers’ dislike of Abdul is chiefly due to his race, although his ‘commonness’ also strikes the wrong note.

At every turn we are given the opportunity to laugh at these dreadful types, who are constantly being thwarted by the Queen’s magnaminity (she is ever the Good Imperialist) and Abdul’s wounded innocence. In fact there is rather too much that is charming, amusing and entertaining – including Simon Callow camping it up as Puccini! Since most of the letters that Victoria sent the Munshi were destroyed by her son’s orders we will never know the true nature of the relationship. In the absence of documentary truth we are left to feast on syrup.

Victoria and Abdul
Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Lee Hall, after a book by Shrabani Basu
Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Olivia Williams, Julian Wadham, Michael Gambon, Fenella Woolgar, Simon Callow
UK/USA, rated PG, 112 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 September, 2017