Near the end of her life and reign, Queen Victoria formed an unlikely friendship with a young Muslim man from India named Abdul Karim. Originally brought to England as a “gift” for the Queen from the Indian subcontinent, Karim ended up staying in England for ten years and becoming one of Victoria’s closest friends and confidants. She referred to him as her “Munshi,” a Persian word meaning “teacher,” because he taught her about many aspects of Indian culture, including current affairs, cuisine, and the Urdu language. They remained extremely close for ten years, up until Victoria’s death, during which time she honored him with membership in the Royal Victorian Order.
Other members of the royal family were so shocked and appalled by the Queen’s friendship with a Muslim Indian man that her son and successor, King Edward VII, actively sought to erase all written and photographic evidence of their relationship after her death. Abdul Karim was sent back to India, where he lived out the rest of his life quietly on land that Victoria had left to him. His secret diary about his time with the Queen was one of the few surviving relics of their friendship and his former high status in England.
The diary – and consequently, the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim – remained hidden for nearly a century until it was discovered and brought to light by writer Shrabani Basu. Her book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story Of The Queen’s Closest Confidant illuminates a close and affectionate relationship between two friends who, on the surface, seem to have very little in common. Now the story has been adapted into the film Victoria & Abdul by director Stephen Frears for Working Title Films and Focus Features.
The film follows many of the real-life events of Victoria and Abdul’s friendship, from Abdul’s arrival in England to their subsequent time spent together. It stars Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Ali Fazal as Abdul Karim. Dench, unsurprisingly, brings a great deal of emotion and complexity to her role as Victoria. The Queen, whose reputation is generally that of an uptight and conservative monarch, becomes a caring, compassionate, and sympathetic woman and friend in Dench’s portrayal. Equally wonderful is the performance by Ali Fazal, a Bollywood actor who up until now may have been unknown to many western movie-goers. His passion and energy make Abdul a lovable character that one cannot help but root for in the face of the injustice he received from many of the British elite.
Other great performances include Eddie Izzard as Bertie, Prince of Wales and Adeel Akhtar as Mohammed, another Indian man who travels to England with Abdul. Both actors bring a great deal of humor to their roles, while still managing to play more serious and important parts in the overall story. Izzard’s Bertie is the perfect villain, a stern and often heartless contrast to Dench’s Victoria and Karim’s lovable Abdul. Mohammed’s plight highlights how cruel Victorian rule of India could be, creating nuance which balances the personal friendship of Victoria and Abdul with the larger power structures involved in England’s domination of the Indian subcontinent.
The whole film invokes a wide range of emotions – it is charming, funny, sad, and heartfelt. In following Abdul’s experiences in England, the audience comes to sympathize with his joys and plights in British society. It also a fascinating lost piece of English and Indian history whose main themes still hold relevance today. The narrative of a friendship between two people from extremely different classes and backgrounds, though taken from the 19th century, feels appropriate for today’s world. It embraces the many rewards of bridging boundaries between people. Overall, the charm, emotion, and cultural relevance of Victoria & Abdul make it well worth seeing.
Victoria & Abdul premieres in cinemas in the UK on 15 September 2017.