Victoria and Abdul – reviewed by IndiaGBnews.com special correspondent Aline Dobbie
he opening words are in Urdu, the setting Agra – famous for the Taj Mahal. The film’s actions are all encompassing and the viewer is immediately intrigued, amused and astounded. Fifteen years is truncated into a film but the events portrayed more or less took place. Abdul Karim was sent to the Court of the ageing Queen Victoria in 1887 along with a fellow Muslim. Judi Dench is outstanding as the ageing monarch, although I felt it was wrong for her to be played as an 80-year-old plus from the start. The actress is 82 but the queen was 68 in 1887, yet depicted as old and frail.
Abdul Karim soon entranced her and one can see why; surrounded by toadying sycophants, lonely, with rather foolish spoilt children, still grieving for John Brown and her beloved Albert. Had Prince Albert not died in the prime of his life there would have been no John Brown and no Abdul the Munshi. But here was a lonely old woman beset with cares of ‘empire’ and mindful of her duty but still with a questing mind, who absorbed readily the knowledge he easily imparted. She became yet again a dutiful student but this time of Urdu. Abdul was an opportunist, there is no doubt, and he was able to improve his position but who could blame him. The Victorian court was one of supercilious disdain for anyone who was ‘not one of them’.
We watched this film in Edinburgh and the audience was chuckling, as were we in many of the scenes as some of the action takes place in Scotland. There were some good touches in that the queen’s physician, who constantly wants to know are her bowels regular, is a sniffy Edinburgh-trained doctor who is appalled at some of his royal patient’s requests. I felt that the English subtitles of the fellow servant of the Munshi were unnecessarily crude and I doubt people in the 1890s spoke like that at all, but it raised a laugh in the audience. There was pathos and spectacle, comedy and some sadness.
Just for the record, Bertie the queen’s heir played by Eddie Izzard, appears as a thoroughly unattractive character…well maybe he was, but I do know in his short reign he cemented the Entente with France and loathed his flawed nephew the Kaiser – understandably. Queen Victoria is called the Grandmother of Europe, yes at a time when monarchies were washed away by a great savage war, and revolutions. As for the Munshi, Abdul Karim, it is known that King George V when he was Prince of Wales visited him in his home in Agra on his first visit, accompanied by his wife then Princess of Wales later Queen Mary. From November 1905 to March 1906, George and Mary toured India where George was disgusted by racial discrimination and campaigned for greater involvement of Indians in the government of the country. He had also upon return from his trip to Australia and other lands in 1901 spoken of the aspirations of those people at a Guildhall luncheon to welcome him home; the prime minister of the day politely told him to stop interfering.
To this day when I return to princely palaces in India I see great huge photographs of the royal couple’s visits in Rajasthan and elsewhere. King George and Queen Mary then returned to India in 1911 for the great Durbar of which much has been written. Indian royalty has had their own pomp and grandeur and ancient lineage; it was just so unfortunate that through all that time the air of supercilious superiority prevailed through much of British society – how much more enriching would have been the whole experience for Great Britain and India if people had had more of an open generous mind as shown by the lonely old queen? I recommend the film as a must-see.
Aline Dobbie is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on India. Born in India to Scottish parents she spent the first 16 years of her life in the sub-continent. An acclaimed travel writer, Aline is the author of a celebrated trilogy of books on India, including The Peacock’s Call – www.thepeacockscall.co.uk