Victoria and Abdul—The Empire Rewrites Itself Back

Director Stephen Frears’s Victoria and Abdul, based on the book of the same name by Shrabani Basu, draws upon the diaries of Abdul Karim (1863–1909) that were published in 2010. Karim was an Indian clerk who shared an unusual bond with Queen Victoria in the last fifteen years of her life, which shook up the royal household and British upper orders. One must locate this film in the larger matrix of nostalgic Empire narratives that are emerging in this post-Brexit phase. These include, but may not be limited to, Gurinder Chaddha’s film Viceroy’s House that released earlier this year and political scientist Bruce Gilley’s much reviled essay “The Case for Colonialism” that has since been withdrawn by the publisher on the author’s request.  Victoria and Abdul features veteran actress Dame Judi Dench who earlier played Victoria in Mrs Brown and young Indian actor Ali Fazl, for whom this is the first prominent appearance on the international scene.

We see a “cantankerous, greedy, morbidly fat… disagreeably attached to power” Queen, whose constipated countenance perks up at the roguish glance of a strapping native. Abdul is a young Indian clerk who maintains the prison ledger at Agra, and travels to England to present the Empress of India with a mohur (a ceremonial coin) at her Golden Jubilee celebration, his express qualification being that he is tall. Accompanying him is Mohammad Baksh, a short and stodgy man, who is mostly present as a court jester. Where everybody else submits to her whims and fancies, hanging upon her word and smothering her with stiff formality, Abdul sweeps her off the feet he has just blasphemously kissed. Victoria and Abdul soon become enamoured of each other: she of his admiring ways, and he, of the ‘great privilege’ she offers by singling him out for attention. She rapidly promotes him to personal footman and then ‘Munshi’ (glossed as ‘teacher’ in the film, but which carries connotations of secretary and language instructor) and even proposes the knighthood for him. At this, her son and heir Bertie (Prince of Wales and future Edward VII) and Her Majesty’s Doctor Sir James Reid threaten to declare her insane.

But what kind of fulfilment does each brings to the other’s life?  We get half an answer. Abdul can indulge Victoria’s fantasies of the Orient. The first instance of this is when he presents her with the mohur. He disobeys orders and impudently raises his head to glance at her, out of curiosity, then fascination. It is this admiring gaze of the Oriental native that transfixes Victoria. The mohur is, throughout the film, supplanted by a succession of riches from the East—embroidered carpet, Kohinoor diamond, Peacock Throne replica, humble mango—all are at her disposal, even as she cannot travel to the colonies over which she rules. In one illuminating sequence in the film, Abdul stages a tableau for the Queen in which he appears as a Persian emperor, at whose feet lie two exotic beauties opening up a chest of treasures for the Queen. Though the two women are amusingly played by two very British ladies from the Queen’s household, the significance of the trope cannot be overemphasised, saturated as it did, the popular discourse of the time. It is this need of the Queen to believe in her own benefaction and the loyalty of the native, that Abdul fulfils. This is why he is cast as possibly the only other character in the film who is not a stereotype, at least, intentionally. He can teach her to write paeans in her own name in Urdu, conjure up in her imagination, a magnificent ‘Taj Mahaal’ and enthral her with the sight of an unveiled Muslim woman, he can seduce her with descriptions of a succulent mango and weave philosophy from a carpet, while she languishes in a prison of memory and customs. For his part, he is in raptures over her, and finds him a “unique” lady, more special for him than his own wife! His wife, one of the two only subaltern women in the film, does not speak, except at the very end, when she (or her mother) shrieks at Abdul’s royal memorabilia being torched at Bertie’s instructions. Victoria and Abdul’s conversations contain no deep intellectual stimulation, but instead comprise of the Queen’s lonely confidences, unwitting expressions of her ignorance in matters related to Empire and a smattering of exotic wisdom at his end. He quotes the Quran, recites Rumi, and touristy terms like ‘Taj Mahaal’, ‘garam masala’ and ‘mango chutney’ glibly flow from his tongue. It is understandable why her entourage might be unappreciative of the doting ways of one visibly in her dotage, indulging in her ‘Munshimania’, while a possible charlatan insinuates himself into her household. As she finds in him a devoted listener and a willing teacher, the ‘royal colon’ improves in its ‘movement’, even making her trill a Gilbert & Sullivan number, “I’m Called Little Buttercup” like a schoolgirl miss.

V&A 1

Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears, 2017 (image credit: IMDB)

But Abdul remains a conveniently blank slate. There is hardly any transformation in him over the course of his fifteen years in England, apart from his increasingly ostentatious but carefully exotic attire, and his promotions at intervals. Admittedly, the film does display some instances of his lack of transparency, most importantly in a matter related to Empire. She believes, thanks to him, that the Muslims had cooperated with the British in quelling the Hindus during the revolt of 1857. Her coterie corrects her misapprehension, telling her about the Muslim sepoys’ outrage at the idea of the use of pig fat in their cartridges, which had resulted in a fatwa being issued against her. But she forgives him this and other deceptions. In the end he is left with images of her—a locket with her picture that she had presented him with, and her statue that is erected in front of the Taj Mahal that she had heard so much about. That the last image we see of him, once more kissing the feet, this time of her statue, belies the notion of ‘friendship’ that is supposed to have been the theme of the film. The film tries to shed its political weight, by swinging between comedy and drama, often diffusing dissent in the humour of a malcontent. As Abdul goes about blithely ruffling important feathers, Baksh’s antagonism to the British is presented as the grumbling of a spoilsport. His disinclination to travel to England, his physical discomfort at its hostile climate and his condemnation of their ‘barbarism’, climaxes into his failing health and then, death. One scene of consequence is allowed to Baksh in his final days, when Bertie visits him to dig up some dirt on Abdul. He responds, “He’s climbing the same greasy pole you are and he’s beating you at it”, thereby defying authority in the face of impending death.

The film abounds in jarring anachronisms and incongruities. Abdul speaks of ‘Uttar Pradesh’ long before such a province came into existence. He frequently lapses into slang that smacks of current sensibilities, rather than nineteenth century ones. The film is inconsistent in matters of diction and is rather clumsy in its non-resolution of the classic dilemma—the use of English among the natives. Abdul switches between crisp Anglicised English and Hindustani with Baksh, before falling into a hesitant ‘Indian English’ before the Queen. All this would have been amusing, had it not been a symptom of a larger casual disregard for historical detail and nuanced portrayal of colonial interactions. Ali Fazl’s phoney wide-eyed wonder is only tolerable if one can interpret it as a faithful portrayal of insincere flattery. Dame Dench unflinchingly portrays the passionate Queen in her declining years, chaffing at the stagnation of her monotonous routine, but unfortunately has few moments where she can elicit the audience’s sympathy. How delicious it would have been if the film had dwelled on Victoria’s emotional hunger and her dependence on the men in her life, if it had chosen to show us what it was that she put down in her diary in Urdu, or how she wanted to live out her rebellion through Abdul. Or, if it had, like this documentary, incorporated how Abdul was interpreted by an incredulous Europe as a ‘captured Indian prince that she paraded around, to show the might of the British empire’. Or even if the film had explored more deeply the conceited, manipulative and avaricious side of Abdul, as well as the challenge that he posed to the foundation of British monarchy, by defying its basis in race, class and religion, suspected of being a spy and an insinuator of communal sentiments, but also the harbinger of a ‘kitchen revolution’ in the royal household. Instead, the film soon gets repetitive and refuses to let its characters grow, or its story develop in different directions.

So then, why do we need this narrative seventy years after the independence of British India? The film could have been a humanised depiction of a vulnerable empress with a formidable reputation of strict morality, that gave the age its name, but does not succeed in according her much dignity. It may have provided a critique of Empire by showing its sychophants and racist snobs, but awkwardly reduces them to caricatures of fawning courtiers and a selfish heir. It could have been the revival of a story bulldozed by History, but ends up as an unconvincing variation of the trope of the magical negro. But more significantly perhaps, it shows what the Empire could have been, had it not degenerated. By presenting us with instances of her astounding ignorance about her colonies, the film absolves Victoria of the coloniser’s culpability, as it does the modern Briton, of his postcolonial guilt. As she accuses aristocrats and servants alike of being ‘racialists’, she distances herself from any such charge and effectively denies the racial basis of the Empire. With her death, we are meant to deduce, began the decline of the British Empire and its noblesse oblige. Just like Viceroy’s House shows us that the British colonial legacy would have been different, if only Lord Mountbatten had not been tricked out of his good intentions by the sinister Partition plans of the British government, led by Winston Churchill. If only the lone good colonialist had not been outsmarted or outlived by the coterie of bad colonialists, the world would have seen a just social order, determined by personal merit and not racist prejudice and political connivance! At her deathbed, the Queen addresses Abdul as ‘My Son’, structuring this narrative as one about maternal (as opposed to paternal) colonial power, and the young colony is shown bereft at the impending loss of the caring mother. In these times of rapid transformations and insular nationalisms, nations are reaching out to the past for a template for future identity. It is surely not a coincidence that histories are then distilled into certain narratives that evade the responsibility of acknowledging the devastating colonial heritage and the need to pay reparation. While being appreciative of Judi Dench’s expectedly superb performance, and indulging in the romantic idea of an unconventional bonding between a lowly Indian man and the most powerful woman on earth of her time, it is imperative to recognise the film’s refusal to engage with an evidently layered story. The film’s disclaimer—‘Based on true events, mostly’—finds honest, if sly echo in an early scene where Abdul and Baksh are being tutored on their livery. When Abdul questions why the sash had to be tied in a particular fashion, he is told that it was an improvisation on images from Indian paintings, since they had not been found ‘Indian’ enough and had to be appear more ‘authentic’. In a similar bid to make the story more appealing to certain post-colonial sensibilities, the film smoothens off the edges of this rather crooked story for popular consumption of a filtered history.

Rituparna Sengupta is a Phd Scholar in Literature at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Her academic interests lie in the realms of mythology, adaptation and culture studies. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on the adaptation of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in contemporary popular fiction in English.


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