Victoria and Abdul Review
Film review by
Javeria Ali Hashmi
There are not many movies that can cajole and wriggle out our discontent with racism more strongly than Victoria and Abdul.
The movie is set in the last 15 years of the monarch Victoria, who ruled for over 50 years on the British Empire. During her reign, the British Empire spilled over its borders and spread to far flung countries, colonized both the east and west. During her prime, the Queen was fully immersed in her role while also maintaining royal appearances, and oversaw the royal house hold consisting of her nine children and over forty grand children and a much larger staff. The movie depicts her senior years when she is detached and complacent, occupying her time with enjoying copious amounts of food. During a royal dinner, she sets eyes on Abdul, a young Indian Muslim man who was sent over from India to deliver a gift and to serve the Queen, and it is at that moment when things begin to change for the Queen and her household. The Queen’s notices Abdul and as they get to know each other, her detachment from life begins to shift into a curiosity for a new culture. Her detachment from her family and servants however remains, and in fact grows as she begins to spend more and more time with Abdul. Her life finds a new focus in life in the form of an Indian native. Abdul brings with him an entire banquet of new experiences that she vicariously experiences through their conversations on ideas, thoughts and places.
Abdul is an ordinary man by Royal standards, but only due to a lack of aristocratic ancestors that would dignify him. But he is a man of letters and lures the Queen’s interest towards the East by sharing his thoughts on Eastern philosophy, culture and Islam. The Queen appears charmed by stories of the Mughul emperors; her predecessors who formed the ruling class in the sub-continent for over 500 years and transformed the sub-continent with their passion for architecture and cuisine are a novelty for her. Unable to travel to India but fully keen to learn about her Indian Dominion, the Queen learns about a new culture and language. The new-found passion for Abdul and his culture adds a certain charm to an otherwise old, stiff and jaded Queen. But as she imposes her new found hobbies onto the royal house-hold and introduces new and eclectic art and objects, others in the Royal class are not inclined to favour Abdul. The traditions of aristocracy and the edifice of royalty created over hundreds of years are threatened by the addition of a lowly man of colour to the Royal household. Abdul is despised by the Royal family and staff alike. The Queen is not simply taken in by him, she prefered his company over theirs and showed none of the customary revulsion to a man who speaks so differently and belongs to a different race. This raises much confusion in the Royal house-hold since this friendship is an affront to a central impulse that exonerates Imperialism on the basis of racial and cultural superiority. And here they were dealing with the Empress who openly harbors respect and demands dignified treatment for a lowly Indian man and holds his opinions and culture in high esteem in her very own Palace. Other concerning issues for those wanting to separate Abdul from his Queen were that Abdul showed clear machinations towards improving the Queen’s opinions on Muslim’s of India. A willing and sincere student, the Queen deferred to his opinions. This predictably did not sit well with the political demagogues of the British Empire who had a vested interest in ensuring complete subjugation of Indians to protect the Imperial rule.
There are several cringe worthy moments in the movie where two antipodes were pitted against each other to expose the injustice and vindictiveness that humans somewhat unwittingly use to hurt each other. On one side there was a man, who unlike most Indians, unapologetically demanded respect and treatment as an equal, and could do so especially because the Sovereign of the Empire conceded to it. The other side, fully entrenched in the superiority of the white race, was in shock to witness a blatant challenge to their sense of superiority. Maintaining a distance from the coloured races was customary and also expedient so that the iron fist over the colonies could be upheld. Concessions were made only to the noble classes of Indian natives and that too only if they professed allegiance to the crown. But, despite of superficial acceptance, a gulf of xenophobia and fear separated the new Western masters from the old Eastern masters of India. But Abdul was not nobility, he was a regular Indian; the privileges conferred on him by the Queen were neither expedient nor decorous. The horror expressed by the household members on witnessing the closeness between the Queen and Abdul was both comical and painful. The interest and partiality of the aging Queen for a very young man is initially romantic but Victoria adjusted her feelings quickly after she discovered that Abdul had a wife and clearly established it as a platonic friendship. The Queen’s curiosity about India, Islam and her efforts to learn the Urdu language are reminders that interest in foreign culture is a universal human trait.
The movie is worth a watch, but be prepared to walk out of the cinema feeling very uncomfortable. I think this can be said for everyone regardless of skin colour, since we generally don’t like to think about race issues or face them head on. For many years, in the post world war era, we have learnt to be complacent and not worry too much about race issues, but the rapid shifts across the globe in the Trump era are forcing us to reconsider and think more deeply on where we stand and whether these differences are worth the troubles that are stirred intro frenzied storms by the hoards inclined to be anxious to a fault and by their leaders who see this human weakness as an opportunity.
Judi Dench is a splendid actor and gave a memorable performance. Ali Fazal I felt was too young for Abdul’s character. He came across more as a modern Indian and less like what would be expected from a munshi (teacher/clerk). I would have expected someone with more weight of personality and demeanour, but that being said, the light hearted acting of Ali Fazal is relatable and enjoyable. For the anglophiles forever seeking to indulge in memoirs of Victorian times, Royal grandeur was depicted well, history was interpreted as customary, but be warned that unlike Downton Abbey, oppression was not celebrated.
I give it a 7 out of 10 mostly because of the surprise I felt in learning about this extraordinary friendship.
This review appears Here