Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon
There are two ways to look at this film.
One – Victoria & Abdul is a fluffy Disney-ish fantasy, and almost a Princess-Diaries-style tragicomedy about colonialism and the mighty British Empire. Director Stephen Frears chooses to chuckle at his country’s infamous imperial misgivings; he identifies the one personal equation of a grumpy, reluctant monarch and translates it into an all-absolving, noble and homely snapshot of the Raj era’s hidden “humane” side. It is historical alteration in the most naïve sense – turning an era that shamed future English generations, into a bumbling royalist rom-com saga.
The old Queen (a perpetually miraculous Judi Dench), of course, is the “lost little rich girl” who is as shackled as the poor nations she has conquered – a fact that is made apparent from an opening montage that shows her as a “slave” to her throne: woken up and dressed every morning, groomed against her wishes, before being read out a long list of duties for the day while she wolfs down her meals like a famished teenager.
Intercut with her routine is the literally servile journey of a Muslim carpet-maker (Ali Fazal, as Abdul Karim) who is shipped in from Agra to present the ‘Empress of India’ with a gift. Against protocol, he makes eye contact with her. They are kindred souls, who find each other in the most unlikely circumstances. We get the cute metaphor, and settle in for a sweet, harmless Broadway-ish ride into a droll world that, especially in self-reverential Oscar-bait biopics, often thrives on taking itself too seriously.
I enjoyed most of this film through this escapist-popcorn gaze – even her gossipy, backbiting Palace staff and appalled family members (especially her son, a soon-to-be-King “Bertie” Edward), who might as well have been the quirky faces of a middle-Indian, small-town drama rather than occupying the confines of the most important house in known civilization. The platonic relationship between a ruler and her servant-turned-“munshi” is in equal parts romantic and uplifting – especially of great satisfaction to Indian viewers in an underdog, one-of-our-own way. There is something rewarding – and uneasy – about watching a local make it “big” on the very shores that plundered us. A traitor or a spy? There’s even a “break-up” scene of sorts to the background of rainfall; I almost expected Arijit Singh to serenade their heavy hearts in the aftermath, which the film did come fairly close to doing.
I can imagine most of the West up in arms about Frears’ deliberately tone-deaf portrayal of an oppressive regime. He sugarcoats history in order to explore a lightheaded cinematic genre – a far throw from the factually accurate, authentic and rigid depictions we’ve come to expect over the years.
Never mind that Ali Fazal and his overly smiley interpretation of a loyal “commoner” ticks all the boxes of the brown-kid-in-Hollywood epidemic; he is sincere, and can be lauded for his breakthrough, but is essentially a strapping young Bollywood actor made to emote in an exotic ‘desi’ accent rather than an unassuming, unglamorous Indian character in a Commonwealth setup. He is playing the impression of a part rather than the part itself. Most Indian actors tend to go “full retard” with their sitcom-style, Kumars-at-42-ish body language in foreign productions – catering to mainstream white perception instead of homegrown modesty. Nevertheless, his goofy performance perversely adds to the story’s broadly aristocratic ignorance. When placed opposite the “Great Dame,” anyone might sound like they’re trying too hard.
The second way to look at Victoria & Abdul, however, evokes the more common reaction. In a time such as ours, when humour is invariably mistaken for delusion and denial, I can imagine most of the West up in arms about Frears’ deliberately tone-deaf portrayal of an oppressive regime. He sugarcoats history in order to explore a lightheaded cinematic genre – a far throw from the factually accurate, authentic and rigid depictions we’ve come to expect over the years. There is expectedly no balance, and not even an attempt to address Queen Victoria’s “other” more documented side. The only sign is the presence of Abdul’s older Muslim friend (Adeel Akhtar), a bitter nationalist who has been dragged to Britain (the “enemy”) and is made to endure harsh climates for no desire of his own. His rants are comical until they are made to serve the central narrative.
The film isn’t quite a behind-closed-doors peek either, with the Queen’s only grand speech effectively glorifying a questionable legacy to force the feel-goodness upon us. Perhaps these expectations stem from the director’s pensive exploration of Queen Elizabeth’s inherent “dignity” in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in The Queen (2006).
But I believe this is what some movies exist to do – to take liberties and perhaps repackage reality to entertain, and not gratify, our sensibilities. I don’t believe Victoria & Abdul was meant to be presented on an investigative level and pass judgment about the past; it doesn’t pretend to be responsible, which is why I didn’t mind its familiar templates and young emotions. The conflicts are silly, but the personalities aren’t. All this makes for a nice enough film about an old woman and a young man – who just happen to be trapped somewhere within the distorted pages of history. Take away their names, and their story becomes just another fairytale.
Watch the trailer of Victoria & Abdul here: