VICTORIA AND ABDUL reveals an unlikely friendship scrubbed from history
It’s understandable if the previews for Victoria and Abdul were the first you’d heard about the relationship between the redoubtable Queen Victora (here reprised by Judi Dench after 1997’s Mrs Brown) and her Indian friend and Munshi (teacher), Abdul Karim. Almost all evidence of their relationship was destroyed by the royal family immediately after her Victoria’s death, only coming to light again after the publication of Shrabani Basu’s Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant. Normally this would be a welcome window into a long-forgotten piece of history, but the “Based on True Events…Mostly” warning we’re given at the beginning of the movie gives the first hints that this is not a serious period drama or examination of Victorian-era racism.
This film is about two things: the unlikely friendship between two people who could not be more different in pretty much every way imaginable, as well as a peek at the deeply-ingrained racism of both the British aristocracy and their servants. The former is enjoyable to watch: Dench (Tulip Fever, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) is absolutely perfect as the monarch in the twilight of her reign, while Ali Fazal (Furious 7) does the best with what he’s given as the sweet and intuitive servant who senses a deep unhappiness in a woman who is the head of an empire. Watching Victoria’s crusty misery fall away as the Munshi spins tales about his home and teaches her Urdu is a genuine pleasure; Dench radiates a childlike delight as he reveals a world that she will never witness firsthand.
“I am so very fond of him. He is so good and gentle and understanding all I want and is a real comfort to me.” Those are Queen Victoria’s real words regarding her Munshi, watching the relationship between them come alive was eye-opening. Although at first it may seem as though Victoria’s staunch devotion to her Munshi and in-family smackdowns of the household’s racist behavior is a bit of creative license, it was in fact accurate, as detailed in the journals and letters of both the queen and those who knew her.
There are plenty of welcome humorous moments throughout the film, but when the humor is maintained throughout some of the uglier moments of racism, it comes across as remarkably tone-deaf. One in particular involves the Munshi being subjected to a physical examination (on Victoria’s orders, out of concern about why there was no “pitter-patter of little Muslim feet” for Abdul and his wife). The doctor, after hissing that he didn’t spend seven years at medical school to look at Indian private parts (my choice of words, the doctor was more graphic), recoils in astonishment, the implication clear, before hightailing it straight back to tattle that the Munshi was in fact “riddled with the clap.” The scene of the stuffy doctor running, huffing and puffing, was very obviously framed to elicit laughs from the audience, all it needed was the Benny Hill theme song to complete it.
A film can have humor and still handle very un-funny topics with sensitivity…Life is Beautiful (1997) is my favorite example. Victoria and Abdul fails at this, however. The scene with Abdul and the doctor, where the former was subjected to an unwanted personal examination and then has the results shared with the household staff, was painful and sad to witness, especially since Abdul maintained his dignity throughout. Even if the purpose of the film was not to make a statement regarding classism and racism (the topic is generally treated with an “Eh, it’s ugly, but it’s reality” shrug), it could have stood out in effective contrast against the other genuinely funny moments throughout if simply presented as the cruel treatment that it actually was. It goes without saying, but racism isn’t funny. Framing a scene for laughs about the brown man’s genitals wasn’t funny.
It’s disappointing, then, that these mishandlings taint what is otherwise an enjoyable film. I think it would have been stronger if those moments had been stripped of humor and allowed to stand as contrast against what was a wonderful relationship to watch unfold…Abdul’s steadfast dedication and love for his friend even in the face of the blatant hatred and resentment from pretty much everyone, along with Victoria’s warm fondness for a man who (literally) kissed her feet.