Tuesday, January 9, 2018

DVD: Victoria and Abdul

The movie Victoria and Abdul portrays the unusual friendship which developed between Queen Victoria of England and an Indian Muslim servant, Abdul Karim. This relationship was to cause scandal and intense jealousy among the Victorian British aristocrats and royalty of the time. It was largely forgotten mainly because after Queen Victoria's death, all of the correspondence between Abdul and Victoria over a thirteen year period was destroyed by members of the Royal family.

Almost immediately after the elderly monarch's funeral, Queen Victoria's daughter Beatrice and her daughter-in-law - King Albert's wife - Queen Alexandra walked to Frogmore Cottage - the home of Abdul Karim and his family-  on the grounds of Windsor Castle. They burst into the home and forced Abdul's wife to hand over the letters Queen Victoria had sent him. The house was searched by accompanying guards and any letters, correspondence, notes, and postcards were removed, and thrown into a bonfire on the lawn. Abdul and his wife were summarily deported the next day to India. Albert had finally erased all evidence of Abdul Karim from his family's history. Or so he thought.

The story of their unique friendship might never have come to light if it were not for Indian author and journalist, Shrabani Basu. On a visit to Osborne House on Isle of Wight to see the newly restored Durbar Room, Basu couldn't help noticing the several portraits of Abdul Karim, especially one by Rudolf Swoboda. Although she initially thought he was an Indian servant of the late Queen, Basu noticed that Abdul was portrayed as a nobleman. Her interest piqued, Basu began her research, a task that would take her to three countries over a period of five years. First she discovered the late monarch's thirteen Hindustani journals, written in Urdu, a language the queen had learned to read and write from Abdul. The journals which were kept in the Royal Archives, had never been translated. Basu also located a few surviving pieces of correspondence written by Queen Victoria to Abdul and read the personal diaries of her physician, Sir James Reid as well as the correspondence of the Royal household, the Viceroys of India and many other letters written by the monarch.

Rudolf Swoboda's portrait of Abdul Karim
 To learn more Basu travelled to Agra, India where she located Abdul's abandoned and derelict tombstone and she also discovered the house that Abdul had built on land given to him by Queen Victoria. However the family was no longer living there and the house was occupied by a Hindu family who informed her that Abdul Karim's family had moved to Pakistan after the 1947 Partition of India.

Basu returned to England and in 2010 published her book about Abdul and the Queen, Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant.  Eventually she was contacted by the great nephew of Abdul who told her that the family in Karachi, Pakistan had possession of Abdul's journal. From this journal, Basu was able to piece together the long-forgotten story of Abdul Karim and his thirteen-year friendship with Queen Victoria. It was a story King Edward VII and the royal court attempted to wipe away when his wife Queen Alexandra and Princess Beatrice arrived at the home of Abdul after Queen Victoria's death.

Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears is based on Basu's book. The  movie  begins Abdul's story in Agra in 1887 with Britain having formally ruled India for twenty-nine years at this point. Abdul Karim, who is seen recording the names of criminals, is called to the Government office to see Mr. Tyler. Tyler thanks Abdul for the carpets he chose to be sent to the British Exhibition and states that the Governor General has decided to present the Queen with a "Mohur" as part of the Jubilee. To present this coin, Abdul and another Indian have been chosen to travel to England. While Abdul is excited at this prospect, Mohammed intimates that he was forced to make the journey.

In England Abdul and Mohammed have authentic uniforms tailored for them and after being instructed on how the evening at Windsor Castle will proceed, they are warned not to look directly at the Queen. This is an instruction Abdul disobeys as he is backing away from the queen. The next day as Abdul and Mohammed are readying to leave England and return to India, Mr. Bigge arrives to inform them that they will be remaining in England. Eventually the two are made the Queen's personal footmen.

As Queen Victoria spends time with Abdul she learns about his family, about the beauty of India including the Taj Mahal and the Peacock Throne, but also about the pillaging of these national treasures by the British. Abdul tells her about spices and Indian food including garam masala, Dal rogan josh and chutney made of mango. And Abdul begins to teach the Queen how to speak and write Urdu, the language of the poets.When Queen Victoria reveals her loneliness and sadness and that she no longer sees a purpose for her life, Abdul tells her  life is about service. He quotes a verse from the Koran, telling the Queen, "We are here for the good of others."and reveals himself to be a Muslim.  Abdul tells Queen Victoria that he is a Muslim and that his father was his munshi - his teacher. Inspired by his words, Queen Victoria requests that Abdul become her munshi, to teach her the Koran, Urdu and anything else he can think of.

But Queen Victoria's growing friendship with Abdul, her learning to read and write Urdu, and her bestowing honors and titles on him, lead to resistance, jealousy and plotting within the royal household to get rid of Abdul.

Discussion

Victoria and Abdul is a fascinating film about a little known friendship during the reign of Queen Victoria. The movie stars Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, Ali Fazil who portrays Abdul Karim, Adeel Akhar who is Mohammed Buksh, Michael Gambon as the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury and Tim Pigott-Smith as the Queen's Private Secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby. Eddie Izzard looks remarkably like his character, Bertie, The Prince of Wales and the future King Edward VII. And for Dench, it's not the first time she's portrayed Queen Victoria; she starred in Mrs. Brown, a film about her deep friendship with John Brown, a Scottish servant.

The film is "based on real events - mostly" as a disclaimer states in the opening scenes. Most of what is portrayed in the film, Abdul's unusually intimate friendship with Victoria, her learning Urdu, and the racist and jealous attitudes towards Abdul are accurate.  However, Director Frears does take some liberties. For example, Abdul did not travel to England to present the Queen with a newly minted medal but came to England because Queen Victoria requested two Indian attendants for her Golden Jubilee celebrations. While Queen Victoria is portrayed as a racially tolerant woman, she was British and the British ruled over India with policies that created serious racial and religious tensions on the Indian subcontinent. The Victorian court and Victorian society viewed dark-skinned people as unequals and social policies reflected this belief. The British attitude is subtly portrayed throughout the film; for example when Arthur Bigge sets foot back in England, he remarks, "Civilization!" even though like India there is a class system and beggars on the docks.

Abdul (left) and Mohammed (right)
In the film, Victoria is portrayed as quite ignorant of the culture and beauty of India, despite that fact that one of her titles is Empress of India. This may have been because, as she explains in the film to Abdul, she has never visited India due to fears that she would be assassinated. Abdul tells her about the spices and foods of India, garam masala and chutney made of mango - fruit Victoria is determined to sample.

Abdul tells her the story behind the building of the Taj Mahal in Agra, but he also tells her that the jewels of this historic and important site were stolen by the British. He enthralls the Queen with his descriptions of the Peacock Throne which he claims was smashed by the British as a punishment for the Indian rebellion. In the film Queen Victoria is portrayed as being quite dismayed at the destruction of the Peacock Throne and the vandalism of the Taj Mahal, however, these actions were likely seen as justified by the British and occurred while Victoria was Queen.

Nevertheless, Abdul was able to influence the Queen to learn something of Indian culture, so much so that she even created her own Durbar Room at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. She commissioned John Lockwood Kipling and Sikh artisan Bhai Ram Singh to decorate the room which was filled mostly with gifts from Indian princes.

The Indian view of Queen Victoria and the British is presented in the film through the character of Mohammed Buksh. While Abdul is thrilled to be traveling to England to meet Queen Victoria, Mohammed is not impressed because she is someone who has "oppressed the entire Indian subcontinent". Mohammed often makes humorous but accurate statements about the British throughout, and he is shown as refusing to help Bertie and other members of the royal household when they ask for help in forcing Abdul to return to India. His derision towards Bertie is marked and representative of the growing resentment of the Indian people towards the British.

Overall though Victoria and Abdul is an entertaining film that opens a window into the very end of the Victorian era. Frears was able to film on location in many of the original settings including Osborne House, Balmoral Castel and Glen Affric and the cinematography captures the beauty of these places admirably.

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