AMIDST the hate, oppression, and inequality that ruled during the British Raj, there was a friendship that is known as ‘history’s most unlikely friendship’. The most intriguing chapter of India’s colonial history is now ready to be unveiled in a Hollywood film, Victoria & Abdul. It is the story of a white Queen and a black Indian servant, a match that was only meant to brew hate when the British ruled India. But what unfolded, became a rare gem in colonial history.
It is a true story of Victoria, the Queen of England and the Empress of India, during the British Raj, and Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim, who worked as a clerk in a jail of Agra and was sent to London. He became the closest person to the Queen, whom she considered friend, lover, teacher, and confidant.
Directed by Stephen Frears, Oscar-winner Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria. The film for the first time opens up the most scandalous chapter of colonial history in which a queen falls in love with her servant, who was an Indian and ‘black’, but who emerged as one of the most influential people in the palace of Queen Victoria. The servant was her Urdu teacher, and remained with her till the end.
In the role of Abdul Karim is the Indian actor Ali Fazal, who shot to fame portraying the role of Joy in 3 Idiots. For Fazal, Victoria & Abdul is a milestone. “A film like this, in which the research itself is a daunting task, does not come easy. I do not know how audiences in India will receive it but I am already proud of being a part of it,” he says.
Karim taught the Queen Hindi and Urdu, and the Queen gave him a photograph of hers signed in Urdu. Fazal spent a lot of time studying Karim’s personality, and how he managed to develop a strong bond with the Queen. “A clerk was sent to London to present an Indian coin to the Queen with her impression on it, but he never knew that he wouldn’t come back,” says Fazal.
The research threw unexpected treasures for the team since not much has been written or said about the relationship. Many letters and other documents which spoke about Victoria and Abdul were destroyed. “ There is a book written by a doctor of the Queen which has a specific chapter ‘Munshi Mania’ (Karim was known as Munshi), which itself speaks a lot about the importance Karim held in her life,” says Fazal.
The other members of the Royal family and officials in the palace grew jealous of Karim and he was sacked post the Queen’s demise.
Fazal says that though he is playing the role of Karim, he has failed to find a name for the relationship that the Queen and munshi shared. “Whatever it was, it was beautiful, spiritual, pure and priceless. In one of the letters to Karim, the Queen signs herself as ‘your loving mother’ and in another scene she asks Karim to ‘hold her tight’. So, we don’t know what this relationship can be termed. But probably it is the best if we do not give any name to some relationships, because they are about the hearts and so pure,” says Fazal.
Shot in England and Scotland, the film also has some scenes shot in Agra in India. “We hope that our effort to shed some light on one of the least talked about chapter of India and England’s history will be appreciated by the audiences. Victoria and Abdul will surely tickle the hearts of many and prove that love has no definition. It can be pure and priceless,” says Fazal.