Story: In her latter years, Victoria, the Queen of England and Empress of India (Judi Dench), found solace in the company of an Indian clerk Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), who went on to become her Urdu teacher, spiritual adviser and closest confidant. Based on Shrabani Basu’s book on this extraordinary true story, the film takes a bittersweet look at this little-known friendship that caused a furore within the royal household.
Review: Stephen Frears begins his film by taking us through the monotonous routine of Queen Victoria as she goes around meeting her social obligations during her Golden Jubilee year (1887). During one such royal gatherings, she glances upon Abdul, a wide-eyed Indian boy, who presents her the ceremonial coin (mohur). Despite being warned against looking at her, Abdul’s childish intrigue makes him stare back at her and flash a nervous smile when their eyes meet, amidst a sea of exasperated privileged people. Abdul’s accidental defiance and indifference to protocol, liberates the queen emotionally, who is a prisoner by her own means. Evidently, a ‘Hindoo’ attendant’s rising influence on the queen, rattles members and servants of the royal family, who later discover that he’s Muslim.
At 82, Judi Dench arrests your attention with her unwavering screen presence and eyes that exude a myriad of emotions – mischief, melancholy, loneliness and longing. She humanises her character effortlessly. Your heart goes out to the ageing monarch as she engages in introspection on a quiet, windy day and tells Abdul, “Everyone I’ve loved has died, and I just go on and on.” Dench is the reason why this fascinating story refuses to seem like a ‘scandal’.
Making the most of this incredible opportunity, Ali Fazal holds his own in front of a legend (Dench). Frears smartly uses Ali’s raw, nervous energy and enthusiasm and infuses it in Abdul, organically. However, his one-dimensional portrayal of the munshi, leaves a lot to imagination and thus unexplained. Why was an Indian so devoted to the Queen of England, who ruled his country? (He even happily kisses her feet). Was he naive or just an opportunist? What was he like as a person? The narrative reduces Abdul to being a mere spectator and that’s its biggest flaw. Also, the film falters as it abruptly changes gear and transforms into a tedious tragedy from a cross-cultural comedy.
Despite an uneven narrative and historical inaccuracies, Victoria and Abdul is a delightful film that deserves to be watched for Judi Dench.