Here’s a film that combines two of my favourite things – Dame Judi Dench and India. Based on a true story – with a lot of licence I suspect – the ageing and grumpy Queen Victoria attends a banquet at which she is presented with a mohar – a ceremonial seal – by two Indian servants imported from Agra. Protocol required that no one – especially lowly Indian servants – should look the queen in the eye, but one of them, Abdul Karim, is more daring; he and the queen exchange glances, and, lo and behold, the queen rather liked it.
An unusual friendship develops between the queen and Abdul over many years and she employs him as her teacher, or Munshi. Under his guidance, she develops her understanding of India, its culture and its languages. Her preference for him puts a lot of noses out of joint, not least that of son and heir Dirty Bertie. But Victoria reigns supreme, and despite their differences, Abdul stays with her until her dying day.
On reflection, it’s not that unusual a friendship, given what Judi Dench got up to with Billy Connolly following the death of Prince Albert. Victoria and Abdul can very much be seen as a sequel to Mrs Brown, and the characters of Sir Henry Ponsonby, Lady Churchill, and of course Bertie appear in both films. In the earlier film, the queen took some solace in the company of her Scottish servant, John Brown. He died in 1883, and the action of Victoria and Abdul begins four years later. She obviously had a thing for hairy, non-English types.
I found this a thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly funny, charming and sensitive film. It gets a little sentimental towards the end of Victoria’s life – but that sentimentality is quickly snuffed out after her death. I’ve read two criticisms of the film; one that it’s a whitewash of the ruthless barbarism of the Raj days, and another that the character of Abdul is simply too servile and two-dimensional. I disagree with both. The film is very much seen through Victoria’s eyes and she lived a cossetted life protected by all her advisers. She had little knowledge of what was taking place in India – indeed, she never went there. Certainly there was ruthless barbarism – constantly brought to the fore by the character of Mohammed, who never misses an opportunity to criticise anything British. Bertie’s personal promise that Mohammed will die in pain proves that the barbarism went right to the top.
As for Abdul being over-servile; put yourself in his place. A 24-year-old man who has already achieved a position of some responsibility (as he sees it) by writing down the names of prisoners at Agra jail, is suddenly jettisoned into close proximity with the Empress of India. He was starstruck. When Victoria asks him why should she keep going, he simply replies, “service”. Abdul is the prime exponent of the art of service. If you go to a grand hotel in India today you will be overwhelmed at the magnificence of the service. I thought the presentation of Abdul was completely believable.
Dame Judi Dench is as immaculate in the role as you would imagine – allowing us to see Victoria’s warmer side, whilst still of course holding on grimly to her supreme power. She’s hilarious in the early scenes where we observe Victoria’s table habits, and she’s delightfully bossy with her toadying officials and even more tedious family. She really conveys Victoria’s adventurous spirit and hunger for knowledge – and her kind respect for all things Indian really appeals to an Indophile like me! Ali Fazal brings huge calmness and serenity to the role of Abdul, nicely bringing out the humour of his unusual and awkward position, and totally convincing as a teacher.
There are some excellent supporting performances too – Eddie Izzard’s menacing Bertie is a true horror, clearly desperate for power and he doesn’t care who he treads on to get it. In his final film, Tim Pigott-Smith gives a great portrayal of the private secretary Sir Henry, assuming to know better than Her Majesty until she insists on his giving way, when he turns into a naughty schoolboy who’s been found out. Paul Higgins plays the ungracious and belligerent Dr Reid, superbly bringing out all the character’s resentment, and there’s a quietly hilarious performance by Adeel Akhtar as the vitriolic Mohammed. The subtitled scenes between Abdul and Mohammed, with all the indiscreet backchat, are a delight.
If you want to see a film that shows the harsh realities of the British occupation of India, go see something else. If you want a feelgood movie about an unlikely friendship, with pompous people being taken down a peg or two, this is the one for you.