Political Film Review #549

In 2003, a chronicle of the role of Abdul Karim in the court of Queen Victoria came to light in Osborne House on the Island of Wight, the queen’s summer home. Shrabani Basu then wrote a book on the relationship, which is adapted to the screen with the same title—Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears.
The film begins with audience laughter as the words “Based on true events . . . mostly” appear on the screen. At the time, Queen Victoria (played by Judi Dench) is about 80 years old. She is the longest reigning monarch in the world, with the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard) waiting next in line for nearly 40 years (the later Edward VII). Symbols of her respect are the many opulently dressed and dedicated servants who cater to her needs and whims, even to ensure that her diet has roughage. But she is bored. Her husband Albert died almost three decades ago, and her schedule each day is rigorous but official, not personal.
Then twentysomething Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) comes into her life. Recruited from Agra, India, to present a ceremonial gold coin from the subcontinent for her Golden Jubilee in 1887, Abdul stands out. He is taller than anyone in her entourage, wears a big turban, has sexy eyes, and soon bends down to kiss her toes, a common way to show reverence in his part of the world. His smile is contagious and evokes joy and—for the audience—laughter at the queen’s delightful responses to his attention. Now comes the fun, as the testy queen at the beginning of the film becomes fascinated with a world that she knows almost nothing about: She bonds with Abdul, learning from him a new calligraphy and language (Urdu), a new religion based on the Koran, the customs and food of India, and the beauty and history of the Taj Mahal. Most of all, she delights in his charm and childlike graciousness, something clearly lacking in the court, where everyone keeps at their distance from her. With Abdul at her side, she travels from palace to palace, including the highlands of Scotland and even a visit to Puccini (Simon Callow) in Florence, where she sings and even dances with him. She orders construction of an Indian-themed Durbar room in her Isle of Wight royal residence, including a fancy white ceiling, Persian rugs, and a peacock throne.
But her entourage, particularly the aging prince, is clearly jealous. They try to dig up dirt about him, including the fatwa placed on her head due to Muslim opposition to British colonial rule. But she will have nothing of their negativism. The more they try to evict him, the more she insists that he is not a servant but instead her Munchi (teacher). When she learns that he is married, she summons Abdul’s wife, who is accompanied by her mother; both wear burkas in court. As Abdul’s racist enemies become desperate to rid the court of those whom they consider intruders, she decides to make him a knight. But that is a “red line” for the court, providing a dramatic moment in the film before her death at age 91, when all papers relating to her interaction with Abdul are burned except for those to be discovered much later by accident.
The Political Film Society has a category for films that bring new facts to light about politics, and Victoria and Abdul clearly merits a nomination for best film exposé of 2017. MH