Victoria & Abdul: Why the Queen's firm, and often controversial, friendships were her redeeming feature
By Sharanya Gopinathan
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).
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”).
Naturally, none of this was well received by the royal household, or by her son Bertie (future King Edward VII, played by Eddie Izzard), who all hatch elaborate plans to have Kareem fall from grace. They say (behind her back) that they’ll leave the household if Karim isn’t kicked out, and Bertie says he’ll have her certified insane. This brings out the absolute best in Victoria: She calls them all “racialists”, dares the staff to tender their resignations to her face, scares her son into scuttling away with a few firm words, smoothly sails over everyone’s objections to Karim’s seating and sleeping arrangements, invites his wife and his mother-in-law over and generally shows you how it’s done, while Karim mostly just… stands.
Some early reviews of the movie have pointed out that the power dynamics of the Raj are rather neatly reflected in the casting and performances — that Judi Dench’s performance as Queen Victoria blows Ali Fazal’s Abdul Karim out of the water, and that Karim feels like a one-dimensional, servile and smiling caricature of a personality rather than a real character that explains this unlikely friendship. Others have also pointed out that the movie skims over mysterious “crucial moments” that would have really explained what was so unique about Karim that cemented this friendship.
But I wonder if this is fair. It isn't really improbable that Karim was wide-eyed, smiling and ingratiating in the presence of Queen Victoria, the Queen of England and Empress of India in 1887. More importantly, I just can’t shake the feeling that this friendship had more to do with Queen Victoria’s unique personality and circumstances than Abdul Karim’s. Sushila Anand, a biographer of Abdul Karim, wrote that the Queen's own letters say that "her discussions with the Munshi were wide-ranging — philosophical, political and practical. Both head and heart were engaged. There is no doubt that the Queen found in Abdul Karim a connection with a world that was fascinatingly alien, and a confidant who would not feed her the official line.”
The more I find out about these friendships, with Karim and John Brown, the more I feel that they reveal really lovely things about Queen Victoria’s personality, and her interest in what the world has to offer her. She looked high and low for friends, from Alfred Lord Tennyson (whom she befriended and offered a baronetcy when she read In Memoriam AHH because his grief over his friend Arthur Henry Hallum's death resonated with hers over Prince Albert’s) to John Brown and Abdul Karim (whose photo she kept in the dressing room of her home, and to whom she wrote letters signing off as “your loving mother”).
She was the kind of person who would stand down her entire household and her own children for her buddies. Her unlikely friendships and ways of dealing with grief paint the picture of a Queen who was still passionately interested in the world and what it had to offer, and was ready to put herself and her soul out there. And Queen or not, there’s something inherently wonderful about a person who hasn’t given up on the world.
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