Stephen Frears’s Victoria and Abdul is based on Shrabani Basu’s non-fiction book of the same name, but it also closely resembles the British film Mrs Brown (1997), which is about Queen Victoria’s controversial friendship with her Scottish personal attendant John Brown.
Judi Dench is the other common link between the two films as the imperious, gluttonous and cantankerous queen of England who is fascinated by the working-class men assigned to serve her. In Mrs Brown, Dench’s Victoria develops an attachment to the brusque and irreverent Brown that goes far beyond the master-servant equation. Brown refers to the queen as “Woman!” and yet she luxuriates in his company, making her the object of disapproval among her family and staff and the object of rude gossip.
In Victoria and Abdul, Victoria (Dench again) has a new distraction that is even more colourful than the Scotsman – but he is far more reverential. Agra resident Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is part of a bunch of people and baubles sent to England to commemorate the queen’s golden jubilee in 1887. Like the India-themed room she has in her palace and the Kohinoor diamond she proudly wears in her crown, Victoria is proud of her Indian objets d’art. She is especially keen on asserting her status as the Empress of India to the assembled European royalty. When Abdul turns up in his livery along with another attendant, Mohammed Buksh (Adeel Akhtar), to be a part of her waiting staff, the queen is thrilled at the dash of exotica in the royal household.
Abdul plays the part of the servile Indian perfectly. He bends down to kiss the queen’s feet when he first meets her – we see the scene in painful close-up. Abdul is also suitably forgiving of Victoria’s staggering ignorance about the country she rules from afar. There are some embarrassing discussions about the 1857 Mutiny, for instance, that should never have been filmed.
The queen rewards Abdul’s unstinting loyalty by appointing him as her Urdu teacher. Their proximity soon begins to grate on the nerves of the household, especially Edward VII, the Prince of Wales and the future emperor of India (Eddie Izzard).
Frears and screenplay writer Lee Hall reduce Abdul’s remarkable but equally complex journey from Agra to the royal household to a series of clash-of-culture moments. Basu’s copiously researched novel uncovers Abdul’s journey and remarkable rise in status until the queen’s death in 1901 with immense detail. The book cannot be crunched into a 112-minute narrative, and Hall’s screenplay picks the bits that suit the movie’s television farce-worthy premise.
The sequences featuring Abdul’s training in British manners, Muhammad Buksh’s inability to acclimatise, and Victoria’s love for food and dismissive ways towards her staff and her son are amusing enough. The better scenes are the ones that hint at but never fufill the promise of revealing the depths of Victoria’s heart. Who is the woman behind the royal visage, and what drives her to seek companionship in and display more affection for Abdul than her family members?
There are hints at Victoria’s loneliness after being widowed and a sense of being trapped in a crowd, but the real answer is as vivid as the Kohinoor flaunted by the queen. The elephant in the room is empire, and though it gets better treatment in the book it’s missing from the movie.
Abdul’s loyalty to his ruler, her hankering for a devoted and uncritical companion, and the horror of the courtiers at Abdul’s presumption in assuming that his closeness to the queen will result in an automatic improvement in his well-being are surely part of a colonial thinking. Indian viewers marking the seventieth year of independence might balk at Abdul’s slavishness and snigger at his astonishment when he is shunned by the rest of the household. It is left to Mohammed Buksh to raise a few slogans on behalf of the colonised.
Ali Fazal is adequate as the uni-dimensional and pleasant-faced Abdul, who exists only to please his mistress. Judi Dench is marvellous, if familiar, as the queen, and the movie is a reminder of the wonderful British actor’s ability to command a scene with the same hauteur as her character.
Victoria and Abdul remains tone-deaf to the colonial framework that allowed Abdul to become the unlikely companion of one of the most powerful monarchs of her time. The movie is equally disinterested in exploring the nuances of the unusual relationship between an elderly ruler a few years away from her death and a much younger man. Abdul’s exaggerated humility can easily be regarded as obsequiousness, just as Victoria’s affection towards him can be reduced to a fascination for an exotic pet from a faraway land. The empire swallows up Abdul, whose only response is to tenderly kiss the feet of a statue of Victoria. He remains, forever, the queen’s humble servant.