Victoria And Abdul
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard and others
Showing at: Cinepolis, CityPride, E-Square, Inox and others
Rating: ** and a half
In the 1997 film, Mrs Brown, Judi Dench had played Queen Victoria, who, while mourning the death of her husband, is consoled by John Brown, a member of her household staff in the Scottish estate of Balmoral. It causes a scandal and no small measure of anger amidst her family and staff. In Stephen Frears’s Victoria And Abdul, based on the book of the same name, by Shrabani Basu, Dench is an older Queen Victoria, the white Scotsman is replaced by a brown Indian, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).
The 68-year-old queen is tired of all the pomp and ceremony surrounding her (which make for elegant visuals), and bored, when young Abdul goes against protocol and looks her in the eye. He has been sent from Agra (so that the Taj Mahal comes into the picture) to present a gold coin to the queen.
Once she wakes from her snooze at the table and sets her eyes on his handsome face, she picks him out as her friend, confidant and teacher. Of course, her son, Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard dripping scorn) and the other courtiers are not pleased. It is clear, however, that there is nothing unseemly in the relationship, except, by standards of British royal snobbery, an Indian Muslim man getting close to the queen is shocking. (One can imagine that if an old king was taken up by a young woman, the situation would be quite different.)
The queen is as imperious as a powerful woman would be, but also curiously ignorant about the state of her ‘sun never sets’ empire; Abdul is the link to the jewel in her crown. It’s a pity then that he is so cardboard, literally boot-lickingly servile and vapid. For the rest of the world, Victoria And Abdul is a charming comedy of manners, but for India, that is one of the countries that has seen the worst of British colonialism, it feels like an ugly reminder of the past, about how Indians were perceived and treated by the white sahib. The queen, the film takes effort to underline, is not racist, but the royal household is, and they don’t like the power Abdul has over her.
Frears keep the narrative light till most part, and does not really examine the strange relationship too closely, or let the viewer get into Abdul’s head. So in the end, the film just remains a piece of Raj nostalgia, memories of the glory days that the British need to get through the troubled times they are going through.