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Victoria and Abdul, out this week

A chat with Shrabani Basu, author of the book on which the film is based

Victoria and Abdul: Abdul Karim is a young man sent to England as a servant. Suddenly, he’s in wonderland, and the queen of England takes a shine to him.
Victoria and Abdul: Abdul Karim is a young man sent to England as a servant. Suddenly, he’s in wonderland, and the queen of England takes a shine to him.

“I think it’s significant,” says Shrabani Basu, “that Queen Victoria, in those days, over 100 years ago, chose to learn Urdu,” the language of a people under her rule. “And that she placed a young Muslim man at the heart of the royal court. This had never happened before, and it has never happened since. And that is what is at the heart of their story is friendship, people who have nothing in common who nevertheless come together.”

Shrabani Basu is the author of Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, which served as the basis for Stephen Frears’s Victoria and Abdul, out this week. “Abdul Karim is this young man, 24, and he’s sent to England as a servant. He doesn’t have a choice. And suddenly, he’s in wonderland, surrounded by so many grand things, and the queen of England takes a shine to him. He’s quite a proud man, and he writes to the queen that he’s never done menial work and he wants to go back. And she says, ‘No, stay.’ She’s at a very lonely stage in her life. Her friend John Brown had died four years earlier, and suddenly, here’s this breath of fresh air.”

It may be fresh, but there’s also an exotic whiff about it. “She’s the empress of India, and she longs to know about it. With Abdul, India comes to her, and that’s very much part of the attraction. He gives her the real story of India. He also quotes Urdu poetry to her, quotes the Koran to her, and tells her about the Taj Mahal, which is a king’s monument of love for his dead wife. Queen Victoria is such a romantic; she loves all this. She starts taking an interest in Indian affairs, starts writing to the viceroy. And she lavishes him with gifts.”

Movie

Victoria & Abdul **

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Toward the end of her life, Queen Victoria — the Empress of India, despite never having set foot in that country — took an interest in, and eventually befriended, a young Indian clerk sent to attend her golden jubilee. Her Majesty (played here with magnificent, exhausted humanity by Judi Dench) even granted him the title of Munshi (“teacher”) and had him accompany her while traveling — extraordinary! What to make of such a remarkable bit of history? Alas, for director Stephen Frears, the answer is “not much” (though what <em>is</em> there is certainly splendid to look upon). There are smatterings of politics — the Munshi’s fellow Indian gets in regular, mordant digs at the Empire — and of healthy cultural curiosity. And he does ease the Queen’s sunset sorrow. But most of the actual drama is taken up with the petty jealousy, ingrained racism, and impotent scheming of the Queen’s household, so much so that the Munshi — the person, as opposed to the simply hated Other — fades from view for large swaths of the picture. The result is that we neither understand his deep devotion to his Empress, nor see the man behind the smile.

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Small surprise then, that the queen’s household hates the interloper from the Far East. “He was a commoner, not even an Indian prince. He’s Indian, a subject race. And he’s a Muslim. They tried every trick in the book: they accused him of being a spy, they accused him of theft. They told the queen they would declare her insane if she didn’t give him up. I thought that was amazing, because you can’t go to Queen Victoria and say that.”

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Victoria and Abdul: Abdul Karim is a young man sent to England as a servant. Suddenly, he’s in wonderland, and the queen of England takes a shine to him.
Victoria and Abdul: Abdul Karim is a young man sent to England as a servant. Suddenly, he’s in wonderland, and the queen of England takes a shine to him.

“I think it’s significant,” says Shrabani Basu, “that Queen Victoria, in those days, over 100 years ago, chose to learn Urdu,” the language of a people under her rule. “And that she placed a young Muslim man at the heart of the royal court. This had never happened before, and it has never happened since. And that is what is at the heart of their story is friendship, people who have nothing in common who nevertheless come together.”

Shrabani Basu is the author of Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, which served as the basis for Stephen Frears’s Victoria and Abdul, out this week. “Abdul Karim is this young man, 24, and he’s sent to England as a servant. He doesn’t have a choice. And suddenly, he’s in wonderland, surrounded by so many grand things, and the queen of England takes a shine to him. He’s quite a proud man, and he writes to the queen that he’s never done menial work and he wants to go back. And she says, ‘No, stay.’ She’s at a very lonely stage in her life. Her friend John Brown had died four years earlier, and suddenly, here’s this breath of fresh air.”

It may be fresh, but there’s also an exotic whiff about it. “She’s the empress of India, and she longs to know about it. With Abdul, India comes to her, and that’s very much part of the attraction. He gives her the real story of India. He also quotes Urdu poetry to her, quotes the Koran to her, and tells her about the Taj Mahal, which is a king’s monument of love for his dead wife. Queen Victoria is such a romantic; she loves all this. She starts taking an interest in Indian affairs, starts writing to the viceroy. And she lavishes him with gifts.”

Movie

Victoria & Abdul **

thumbnail

Toward the end of her life, Queen Victoria — the Empress of India, despite never having set foot in that country — took an interest in, and eventually befriended, a young Indian clerk sent to attend her golden jubilee. Her Majesty (played here with magnificent, exhausted humanity by Judi Dench) even granted him the title of Munshi (“teacher”) and had him accompany her while traveling — extraordinary! What to make of such a remarkable bit of history? Alas, for director Stephen Frears, the answer is “not much” (though what <em>is</em> there is certainly splendid to look upon). There are smatterings of politics — the Munshi’s fellow Indian gets in regular, mordant digs at the Empire — and of healthy cultural curiosity. And he does ease the Queen’s sunset sorrow. But most of the actual drama is taken up with the petty jealousy, ingrained racism, and impotent scheming of the Queen’s household, so much so that the Munshi — the person, as opposed to the simply hated Other — fades from view for large swaths of the picture. The result is that we neither understand his deep devotion to his Empress, nor see the man behind the smile.

Find showtimes

Small surprise then, that the queen’s household hates the interloper from the Far East. “He was a commoner, not even an Indian prince. He’s Indian, a subject race. And he’s a Muslim. They tried every trick in the book: they accused him of being a spy, they accused him of theft. They told the queen they would declare her insane if she didn’t give him up. I thought that was amazing, because you can’t go to Queen Victoria and say that.”

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