As the film Victoria & Abdul opens, Queen Victoria is lonely. It is 1887. She presides over an empire that envelops a quarter of the world’s population, has been on the throne for 50 years, widowed for 26 after the death of Prince Albert, without her beloved John Brown for the last four. “I miss him and Albert. I’m so lonely,” Victoria says on screen. “Everyone I’ve really loved has died. I go on and on.”
“I’m morbidly obese,” she complains in the film. “I can be cantankerous. I am disagreeably attached to power.” She is annoyed at the machinations of household staff and even her own children, who all seem to want something from her, irritated by a life governed by routine and rote.
Then, at a lavish formal banquet, she locks eyes with someone breaks the rules of court etiquette—“You must not look at her. It’s the most important thing.” —when he gazes upon the Queen, and smiles. He is someone completely foreign to royal life, court etiquette and the hidebound rules and mores governing Victorian life. His name is Abdul Karim, a 24-year-old clerk from Agra, India.
The Queen is intrigued by this tall, handsome man, who with fellow Indian Mohammed Buksh, was picked by colonial officers to travel from the subcontinent to present her with a golden mohur, a Mughal coin, to mark her Golden Jubilee. He would remain by her side until her death in 1901. He was her Munshi (teacher, in particular of the Urdu language) while she was “your dearest friend” or “your dearest mother.” As the film documents, their friendship endured a constant drip of racism from disapproving royals, courtiers and the household staff, who tried, and failed to dislodge Karim from his monarch’s favour.
Victoria & Abdul is a fluffy drama that moves predictably to its denouement, like Victoria’s stately, rule-laden royal court at the end of her reign. It’s an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, especially for anyone interested in history or royalty. Yet, aside from the charismatic performances by Judi Dench (Victoria) and Ali Fazal (Karim), Victoria & Abdul is oddly devoid of meaningful drama, especially the melodramatic confrontation between Victoria and her subjects. The sets and locales are spectacular—the film is the first to be allowed inside Victoria’s former residence, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight—yet it spends too little screentime exploring why Queen is so intrigued, and why Karim is so unwaveringly loyal.
Its sensibility—the Queen is appalled at the racism of her courtiers and family, who, in turn, are scandalized that she’s consorting with an Indian Muslim—seems jarringly modern for such a black-crepe laden historical drama. Yet, what may save this film is the realization that the story it depicts is largely accurate.
Queen Victoria’s friendship with Abdul Karim
That we know anything about Abdul Karim and his extraordinary friendship with the most powerful woman in the world is due to author Shrabani Basu. She discovered his portrait in the Indian Corridor at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where Queen Victoria spent part of each year. “This man is not a servant,” Basu recounted during an interview at the International Toronto Film Festival where the film was screened earlier this month. “He’s something more special.” Intrigued she dug out a story that had been consigned to history after Victoria was succeeded by her eldest son, Edward VII.
She read the clippings about the Queen’s teacher and aide. She devoured the 13 journals of her Hindustani Diary in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, one for each year, in which the Queen recorded her lessons in Urdu. Though Victoria’s daughter, Beatrice, ruthlessly edited, rewrote and then destroyed most of her mother’s original diaries, these Urdu ones miraculously survived. “It is my humble privilege to serve Your Majesty” is the first thing that the film’s Victoria learns to write and pronounce in Urdu.
The only puzzle for Basu is she couldn’t find Karim’s family. After the partition of India in 1947, they’d left for Pakistan. Luckily, shortly after she initially published Victoria & Abdul, she received a call that his great-grandson had heard of her project and wanted to see her. Soon she was looking at long-lost photographs, and, most importantly, Abdul Karim’s diary that covered the first decade of his royal service to the empress. soon she was rewriting her book.
Suddenly Queen Victoria is hot again
The studios were so intrigued by what Basu had discovered that they got in a bidding war to bring it to the screen. Eventually it came to director Stephen Fears (The Queen), who recruited Judi Dench, who’d previously played Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, and Bollywood star Ali Fazal to play the Munshi. “She likes a six-foot-tall strong man standing next to her, taking care of her,” the author says, just as John Brown did before. “I thought the taller one was terribly handsome,” she says in the film. “I suddenly feel a great deal better.”
What makes the relationship work is that Abdul Karim is “culturally so different that he crosses the formal borders and lines that have been laid down,” Basu explains. He relates to her on a human level. While it’s not an equal relation, she is the empress, there is not that formality.”
What Basu wants viewers to take away is that “There can be a bond with two people who have nothing in common. She’s the empress of India, he’s a clerk from the Agra jail yet they become friends for 13 years. They both benefit.” She gets a lease of life. He gets to work beside the Queen. “I am your servant,” he says on screen. “I will be by your side. I will never leave you.”
Still, all the years of attention goes to his head. Victoria gives him land in Agra and a pension, and showers him with medals as well as cottages on her estates (The Karim Cottage on the Balmoral estate in Scotland can be rented for upwards of $1,100 a week.) In the film, as they desperately seek to destroy him, his fellow Indian Mohammed Buksh says to the future Edward VII and courtiers: “Abdul does what everyone else does: looks for preferment, curries favour, crawls up the stinking pole of the British Empire, making fools of all of you. A Muslim Indian servant beating you at your own game. I hope he makes the whole damn thing comes tumbling down.”
Yet, for all their hunting, they found no corruption and no scandals. Indeed, as Basu explains in her book, the only favour he asks for is a pension for his father. “He loves seeing his photograph everywhere. That’s the extent of his crime.”
“She’s the only friend he has. Everyone else in that court hates him. She’s the one championing his cause,” Basu says. He’s with her until the very end. Then, as she expected, they burn her letters to Karim, and force him back to Agra. Queen Victoria’s Munshi dies eight years later, age 46.