Victoria & Abdul movie cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon
Victoria & Abdul movie director:Stephen Frears
Victoria & Abdul movie rating:2 stars
Shrabani Basu, on whose book this film is based, rightly underlines that the story of the friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul Karim, “sounds like a fantasy, but isn’t”. Unfortunately, as told by this film, through an actor whose Abdul is as two-dimensional as a cardboard, with as little insight into the man transported into an alien world, Victoria and Abdul plays out exactly like a fantasy.
Dench, with her head of white hair, her face creased with wrinkles, her tired body, and her broken spirit, seems more of a tormented outsider in the rigidly rule-bound royal household, than Fazal himself. Tiresomely cheerful, he kisses the monarch’s feet with as much devotion as he declares his love for Urdu, for example. It’s left to the other Indian, a talented Akhtar wasted in the role of the sidekick, to mouth the few abuses at the Raj’s oppressive ways. The ease with which Abdul accepts all the roles offered to him by Victoria, starting with standing by as she eats at a ceremonial dinner so that he can present her a Mughal coin that she barely looks at, to rising to become her closest confidant, Abdul could easily be a con artist inveigling himself into the good books of a lonely old woman.
That’s a huge disservice to this remarkable story, as it ended exactly like this, with the royal family trying its best after Victoria’s death to paint Abdul as a con, throwing him out of the house she had given him, sending him back to India, and destroying most of the correspondence between them.
In fact, every step of the way, Dench and a cast of solid British actors, including Pigott-Smith as the head of her household and Izzard as Victoria’s eldest son Bertie, do a splendid job of showing why the presence of an Indian in their close-knit world would be unsettling. The discovery that Abdul is a Muslim to boot, in the delicate years for the British monarchy in India after the 1857 Mutiny, is the funniest in the film. And enlightening as well, for the fact that Victoria misses all the clues indicating this. She herself is rattled at the realisation of her ignorance.
If only Abdul showed any sign of why the Empress of India would find him a worthy ‘Munshi’, translated here as a “teacher”. He shows just rudimentary knowledge of back home, proffering the Queen “biryani with mango chutney” at one point, and is only too keen to leave that world for the gilded one she offers in return.
Their story could have ended only way. The film makes us wonder why it doesn’t head that way sooner.