How many of you can remember six years ago? I ask for a couple reasons. The first is self-deprecating. It is somewhat embarrassing, I should think, for a trained historian to keep locked in his head random facts hundreds of years old and cannot clearly recall details from my own life. I tend to date events based on who I dated in a particular year. That is pretty pathetic, no? It is also not specific. It does lead me to the other aspect of my faulty memory. Six years ago, Victoria & Abdul (2017) premiered. Thinking back tells me that I wanted to see it in theaters, but dash it if I could tell you why this did not happen. Maybe I was feeling heartbroken over a breakup? Who knows? Anyway, I have now remedied that mistake.
Victoria & Abdul begins with the second half of the title. The first half, by the way, is Queen Victoria I of England (Dame Judi Dench), but we will get back to her. Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a clerk at an Indian prison, but a dedicated and humble servant of the British Empire. One more bit of historical context: India is a British possession at the time this movie is set, which is the late nineteenth century. It is time for Victoria’s golden jubilee, celebrating fifty years on the throne, and Abdul and his friend Mohammah Baksh (Adeel Akhtar) are chosen to present a mohur in appreciation of Victoria’s reign from the Indian people. This turns out to be a simple coin, and Mohammad does not understand why two people need to cross the vast distances to deliver it to the aged and corpulent monarch in person. Abdul, on the other hand, is thrilled by the opportunity. When they arrive, the queen’s household has strict instructions for the mealtime ceremony when the coin is to be given. One of the most repeated orders is that they are not to make eye contact with the monarch. For her part, Victoria is mostly oblivious to the proceedings, and is seen sleeping at moments. As Abdul is backing away from doing his duty, however, he cannot help looking at Victoria, and it is then that they lock eyes. This is noticed by the rest of the household servants and Abdul and Mohammad are in the process of being chewed out for Abdul’s impertinence. What saves them is Victoria, who had been taken with Abdul in that moment. He is later ushered into Victoria’s office where, surrounded by her attendants, he drops to her feet and kisses them. Everyone else is horrified, except for Victoria, who is delighted. She begins to favor Abdul, spending increasing amounts of time alone with this supposedly lowly servant. She also shows an interest in his culture, though this comes with a series of misunderstandings borne of that awful colonizer attitude that makes blanket assumptions about the other. For example, she assumes he is a Hindi speaking Hindu. He is actually a Muslim who speaks Urdu. This is a rather benign miscommunication. In Abdul telling Victoria about his life, she mistakes his literacy for being of higher standing in India than being a humble prison clerk. No matter the way these things are interpreted, she continues to elevate his position. She also arranges to have his wife (Sukh Ojla) and her mother-in-law to be brought to live in England in a home she gives to them. She even takes to calling him her “Munshi,” or teacher. This is crossing a line for certain members of the household, led by her eldest son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), current Prince of Wales and the future King Edward VII. Abdul’s detractors believe they have found a way to get rid of him when they remind Victoria that he is a Muslim. This is not a problem for her because she is not remembering her history properly. In 1857, Indian Muslim soldiers, called “Sepoys,” rebelled because the cartridges for their rifles were bring sealed with pig fat, thus going against their dietary restrictions. Their leader had issued a personal fatwa against the queen. At first, Victoria is furious with Abdul for misleading her about his background. She dismisses Abdul, but just as quickly changes her mind when she realizes how petulant she is being. For the royal household, this means putting up with this foreign interloper for longer. It is made worse for people like Sir James Reid (Paul Higgins), who is the queen’s personal physician. When Victoria notices that Abdul and his wife have no children, she orders Dr. Reid to examine them both to his utter horror. The final straw, though, comes when Victoria decides she is going to grant Abdul a knighthood. It causes the entire staff to threaten resignation. In response, Victoria gathers the staff and other hangers-on and essentially scolds them. This seems to be the last of her strength as after she delivers her pronouncement, she walks out of the room and collapses into Abdul’s arms. This is the beginning of the end for Victoria. She tries to send Abdul back to India, telling him that it will be dangerous for him in England when she passes. Abdul instead reiterates his desire to stay by her side until the end. When that does come, Bertie does not treat Abdul with any of the warmth characterized by his mother. Indeed, shortly after he is crowned Edward VII, he summarily orders Abdul and his wife out of the country and back to India, burning the correspondence between Abdul and Victoria in the process. Abdul thus returns to his home. The final shot is off him visiting a statue of his beloved Queen Victoria with the Taj Mahal in the distance.
One can look at this last scene in Victoria & Abdul and think that it is a bunch of nonsense. What I appreciate about the way the history is presented in this film is the sort of disclaimer at the beginning of film proclaiming it to be based on a true story . . . “mostly.” This is a rather candid admission on the part of a Hollywood executive, the likes of which is rare in movies. The two title characters did exist, and the movie appears to hit the rough outline of the relationship they had with one another. There is some historical license taken with the history because the makers do not want to completely bore you. What they do hope will interest you is the relationship shared between Abdul and Victoria. There is a moment somewhat early on that relates to Abdul making sense of these colliding worlds. In talking about the British Empire, he points to the Persian rug in her office and discusses the way the different threads are woven together. In turn, I feel this is a useful way of thinking about how God sees all of us. To continue with Abdul’s metaphor, we are all threads in this intricate pattern that He has made of us. There are different colors and purpose for these threads, but they all work together as a whole. God alone can see their function because he is the One who can look at it all as one piece. He loves each the same because they are part of His beautiful tableau, even if I am venturing into other parts of this cinematic comparison.
You watch Victoria & Abdul because it is the story of a sweet relationship between people from vastly different parts of the world in every conceivable construct of that idea. Victoria does act spoiled at times, but it is Abdul who is always able to bring her back down to Earth. He does so at one point by reminding her that we are all servants. My favorite part, though, is when she is about to die and he tells her to be like a little drop of water falling into the ocean. Its existence may be over, but it gains the whole ocean. I would like to get to that point in my relationship with God.