In 2010, Shrabani Basi wrote and released a novel called Victoria and Abdul. The book documents the time during the final years of Queen Victoria and her friendship with the young Abdul Karim. On September 20th, the film adaptation of the novel will be displayed across theaters. If most audience viewers are clueless about such a story by the time the movie plays onscreen, the bewilderment will certainly continue.
As one who has never heard of the story prior to the movie, I can only glean some nuggets of truth from the movie. Even the beginning of the movie begins with the disclaimer that this is a true story, for the most part. There was indeed a friendship between Queen Victoria and a Muslim man named Abdul Karim during her final years. To the alarm of her court, he became her closest confidante and her “munshi,” a spiritual adviser. After her death, King Edward VII burned all correspondence between her and Abdul and banished him. So with these basic facts, the movie is played out with comedic and sometimes odd liberties.
Judi Dench once again plays Queen Victoria, who has grown weary of it all. She has reigned for over sixty years and is still mourning the loss of her husband and her Scottish friend, Mr. Brown. Abdul Karim (played by Bollywood star Ali Fazal) is “selected” (thanks to his height) to travel from Agra to England. Mohammed (played by Adeel Akhtar) is forced to go along too. Once they arrive in England, Abdul can’t open his eyes widely enough from all the awe and power of England, while Mohammed can care less. His misery is played out in many comedic acts.
Immediately, the two are forced to wear the English version of their Indian clothes to present a single coin. Abdul is also to follow one more rule: “Do not look at the Queen.” Brazenly, he breaks that rule with one glance and immediately locks eyes with the Queen. There is an instant connection. Before the members of the court can close their gaping mouths, Abdul is summoned multiple times to be by the Queen’s side. His status quickly elevates from servant to her dear friend.
Despite Queen Victoria’s apparent happiness, those around her are absolutely furious. They scheme and plot for ways to bring down Abdul. They mock him, pointing out his health problems. Yet with each tactic, he just elevates even higher in the Queen’s esteem. Time is what brings this farce to an end with Queen Victoria’s passing.
The heart and soul of the whole movie is carried on purely by Judi Dench and the historic locations. The movie is indeed eye candy for those who enjoy period costumes and architecture (shamelessly me). Of all the locations, it was the Osborne House that was the gem of the film. Victoria and Abdul will be the first movie that has been filmed at Osborne House. Much to my surprise, there really was a Dunbar room, a room for Royalty and such.
The locations and costumes were enjoyable, but they were not impressive enough to distract from the almost cartoonish take on the story. There were definite villains and heroes in this movie. The court’s disdain and hatred for Abdul is emphasized in high comedy form during most of the movie. The audience laughs at the apparent discomfort and nonsense of the court. Then reality sets in, and gloom descends heavily on the movie right at the end.
Overall, it is an uncomfortable and imbalanced film. The film is riddled with awkwardness. One key scene that comes to mind is the dancing scene between the Queen and Abdul. For most of the movie, their interactions have been mostly sweet. So when they are sweeping along the corridor dancing, Judi Dench’s smile is radiant and you can’t help but smile along. Then the happy scene stutters when she learns that Abdul is married.
Her happiness quickly flashes into shock and dismay. This scene is completely baffling. Why would this shock the Queen? When the Queen first met Abdul, she is smitten by his good lucks but would that warrant such a reaction from her?
On the flip side, why wouldn’t Abdul share stories of his family right away? For all the beauty that he waxes on about India and the food, he neglects to provide any indication about the “love” that he has for his wife. Not even for one second do we see him pine away for his family. There was no indication of a family up until this point. Was he afraid that presenting his family to the Queen would be a blotch on this character? The whole scene is quite baffling.
Abdul’s behavior in the film doesn’t seem to be realistic or consistent. We see him as a quiet clerk in India and devoted Muslim as he conducts his prayers. He is quiet, seemingly shy and sweet. When he and Mohammed arrive in India, Abdul is completely childlike in his wonder and amazement at it all. At this point, I have a big gripe. Why is he happy to be there?
Abdul was from Agra, a province of India that was under British rule. The relations between the soldiers and citizens were historically known to be tense. There is even a scene where Abdul is jostled forcibly by a soldier as he walks through the streets. One would assume that both Abdul and Mohammed would arrive in England with quite a bit of trepidation and unease. Instead, it is only Mohammed who bears the entire negative burden. So much so that it almost seems to manifest physically within him.
Abdul’s omitting of information such as his family and the revolt are also in question. Why do so? Was he trying to paint a beautiful picture of India to the Queen? A Queen who had the title of “Empress of India”? A Queen who should have been more than familiar with the strifes and issues? Or was there an ulterior motive? If the swiftness of the friendship would not alarm the court, then this most definitely would.
It isn’t shocking that the court would not like Abdul due to his nationality. England ruled so many areas that of course they would look down upon it all. In the film, the court plays itself as a caricature. They are ridiculous in their propensity for protocols, they are greedy, malicious, and cannot abide by anything that Abdul does. It does make for some funny moments, but it is pretty ridiculous. What would have been more believable was to see their alarm at what a risk Abdul was to the safety of Queen Victoria.
Yet, the movie is enjoyable. As long as one ceases to analyze it too deeply, then it is a sweet movie with a lot of laughter. I just wouldn’t consider this a piece heavy on historical accuracy or sensitivity. If nothing else, the movie’s light approach to the story will tantalize curious minds to do some furious research on more places to learn and discover in England.