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Victoria & Abdul  : Fun Fiction & Fuzzy Facts
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Friday, October 6, 2017
Stephen Frears
Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Michael Gambon

When the opening credit states, “Based on real events…mostly,” it’s perhaps a warning not to look at it as a faithful depiction of history or fact.


20 years ago, in the film Mrs Brown, Judi Dench played a Queen Victoria whose friendship with commoner Jim Brown created much heartburn in the palace.


In 2017, Dench plays the Queen again, the palace is up in arms in a repeat act and for a second time it’s over an unlikely friendship between her and oh my God, this time with a Muslim clerk from India. “A brown Jim Brown,” as someone disapprovingly sniffs. 


Taking off from Shrabani Basu’s book on the real-life friendship, director Stephen Frears makes Victoria seem virtuous in every way while Bertie her son and her society and staff are assigned black roles as intolerant racists.


Was Queen Victoria such an open-minded liberal? Was the real-life Abdul Karim an upright victim?


These doubts will linger but the light British comedy around the stiff court etiquette is welcome.


When Abdul and Mohammed are shipped from India to present Her Majesty with a commemorative gold coin, they’re initiated into the right court behaviour. Don’t make eye contact with the Queen, stay still and walk backwards without turning your back to her. But what Abdul Karim does is to make a lifelong contact with the Queen that the whole of Britain resents.


The Empress finds Abdul rather good looking, then rather interesting and finally rather indispensable in her life. When Bertie and her advisors suggest that he’s using his position, she asks, tartly, ‘And all of you don’t?’


What she found fascinating about Abdul is glossed over given that she was almost a mother figure to him. Yet there’s a hint of disappointment when she learns much later that he’s married. On the other hand, her physician finds he’s “riddled with gonorrhoea”, her own son and her inner circle find him “a lowly imposter”.  But the imperial decree maintains that Abdul and his burkha-wearing wife and mother-in-law, are an integral part of the royal household. When there’s an uprising in the staff, the Queen rules it as treason and every attempt to discredit Abdul earns her displeasure. It’s a strange friendship if that’s what it was.


While the uppity nose in the air of the British is worth a laugh, the racism card is too strongly played to be coincidental especially in current times. Even when the Queen wonders if all’s functioning well inside Mrs Karim, she says, “Why isn’t there the pitter-patter of little Muslim feet,” the stress on the community obvious.


Playing Abdul Karim is a big break for Ali Fazal who’s pleasant but is called upon to wear only an OB-SEE-QUEE-US obsequious smile most of the time and not scripted to do anything animated.


What is perfect is Judi Dench’s majestic performance as the 81-year-old empress strong enough to withstand opposition, frail enough tosee her life slipping away and stubborn enough to hang on to that odd friendship.


For an unexplained but intriguing real story of Queen Victoria’s friendship with an Indian below her station, Victoria & Abdul gets a 3* rating.


Reviewed by
Bharathi S Pradhan

Senior Journalist & Author
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