victoria & Abdul focuses on the (mostly) true story of the warm friendship between 68-year-old Queen Victoria (Judi Dench), and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young Indian Muslim servant brought to England to participate in the Queen’s golden jubilee celebrations in 1887. Based on the book by the same name by Shrabani Basu, Victoria & Abdul shows how Karim surprisingly rose through the ranks to become Victoria’s trusted confidant, long-term Urdu teacher (or “munshi”), and the target of the ire of the Queen’s racist (and weirdly powerful) household staff.
But if you look at Queen Victoria’s life, Karim’s rise isn’t so surprising after all. Because, you see, Karim wasn’t the first “unlikely” friendship Victoria had made since her husband’s death, nor was it the first time we’ve seen evidence of the strength of her passions. It seems since her beloved husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria tried to cope with her grief by frantically making firm and often controversial friendships, friendships so strong they’re being immortalised in books and movies a hundred years later, and are, perhaps, her greatest redeeming feature. Long before Abdul Karim ever arrived on English shores, she became great (and controversial) friends with John Brown, an outdoor servant at one of her residences, who was also soon hated by her personal staff for his informal manner and his quick rise to become the queen’s most favoured attendant (she was even buried with his letters and a lock of his hair).
Still from Victoria & Abdul
Still from Victoria & Abdul
Victoria & Abdul is meant to be an “unofficial sequel” to director Stephen Frears’ Mrs Brown, which told the story of Queen Victoria and John Brown and won Judi Dench a BAFTA 20 years ago. The only reference to John Brown in Victoria & Abdul is a scene where the Queen breaks down in front of Karim at the Isle of Wight, telling him that everyone she’s loved has died, and mentioning how much she misses John Brown even before she gets to her beloved Albert.
Her friendship with Karim then, four years after the death of John Brown, only reaffirms the kind of woman Victoria was: Always looking outward at the people and things the world had to offer, hunting for solace and happiness in her old age. Karim seemed to fit into the mould of what the ageing, grieving queen wanted from a friend and confidant at that time — a loyal “outsider” who’d be blunt with her, an intelligent person who could give her the information about India she wanted, and provide a worldview she herself could not have (she explains that she’s never been to India, but then again, she was also the “first reigning British monarch to set foot in Spain”). They take long walks together where he explains to her what a mango tastes like (like a combination of an orange and a peach), the situation of the people in India (which he slightly misrepresented once by falsely painting Muslims more favourably than an explanation of the Mutiny warranted, with bad consequences), and about his own family back in Agra. She, in turn, is an animated and interested student of Urdu, and anything else Kareem has to teach her — about carpets, the Quran, the way the Mughals do things in India, the last of which inspired her to build a “durbar room”, an homage to all things Indian, at one of her own residences (“I am, after all, Empress of India”).