Power equations govern a lot of relationships: familial, professional, romantic. In many cases, though, they’re misused, especially by older powerful men against younger women, but they hang over most relationships. Such an equation is present between Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul. The power dynamics between the two is, in fact, gargantuan – so much so that you wonder that how did their paths cross in the first place. Consider this: Queen Victoria, the “Empress of India”, ruled a large part of the world. Abdul Karim, on the other hand, was a clerk in an Agra jail– an insignificant documentarian of prisoners in a country of prisoners.
Victoria & Abdul, based on the non-fiction book of the same name, by Shrabani Basu, attempts to make sense of this extraordinary relationship. Right at the outset, Frears’ intellectual curiosity exceeds their relationship. For instance, in the beginning of the film, Frears shows us the absurdity and monotonicity of monarchy: the servants serve food to their masters at the dining table like obedient automatons; the Queen’s subordinates eat in a depressing uniform fashion, careful to finish their servings before her, for their plates would be whisked away; the Queen, presumably so inured to and bored by this mind-numbing exercise that she dozes off. She is figuratively awoken by the sight of Abdul – tall, calm, bearded – when he defies himself to smile at her, after presenting her with a “muhar”, a ceremonial coin by the Indian government. But if the rest saw Abdul as just another Indian servant, Victoria’s gaze pierced through the limiting labels, seeing him as who he was: a young “handsome” man.
The two start spending time with each other. When Abdul’s around, she orders her underlings, senior officers in the British Empire, to leave them alone. Slowly, through Abdul, she gets a glimpse of India – the country that she rules but knows little about. When Victoria met Abdul, she was nearly 70 years old; he was in his early-20s. What was the exact nature of their relationship, you wonder, and the film refuses to give easy answers. In fact, this alone stokes your curiosity about it, making you warm up to its central characters, figuring out their wants.
Nearly three decades after the death of her husband, Victoria is evidently lonely. Surrounded by obsequious ministers, a mother of “nine children who hate each other”, she is a prisoner in her own castle – a life that is no doubt privileged, but not devoid of gloom or despair. Abdul, in such a circumstance, is both an escape and an invitation to a world she’s barely known– an invitation she accepts, to the chagrin of the members of the rest of the royal household.
In today’s times, where countries are continuously riven by religious, ethnic and ideological differences, the relationship between Victoria and Abdul is a much-needed paean to multiculturalism – the irony and the subtext here, of British Empire’s crass colonialism, which forcibly sought to render the world uniform, makes this story layered and complex. Time and again, the film prods us to think about Victoria and Abdul. In one scene, Victoria looks at her image in the mirror before meeting him. This bit – of an old woman trying to find traces of beauty in herself after years of loneliness –is singularly poignant. In another, Victoria finds out that Abdul is married. The disappointment is writ large on her face. “Why didn’t you tell me?”, She asks. “That changes everything.” Yet, when Abdul brings his wife and mother-in-law to stay with him, Victoria is nothing but respectful and caring towards them, making you wonder that theirs is a relationship that resists simplification. Victoria & Abdul also benefits from the performance of its leads. Dench, in her final years of acting, is a picture of quiet grace, while Fazal, who has just begun to find his footing in international productions, plays his part with understated charm.
The film, however, does suffer from uni-dimensional plotting and people. Nearly every British character – the statesmen, the royals and court officials, including Victoria’s eldest son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), who oppose Victoria getting close to Abdul – are caricatures, testy and stupid. Moreover, Victoria and Abdul’s relationship, to some extent, is tediously linear: the Queen nearly always finds Abdul a picture of perfection, perpetually snubbing her underlings. These plot points make the film a little too neat and convenient, denying it further thematic and narrative layers. Besides, Victoria and Abdul knew each other for 14 years. How did their relationship change over such a long period of time? The film isn’t interested in that and never seriously considers the great sweep of time.
Even with its flaws, Victoria & Abdul is a sweet reaffirmation of what many long to believe: That we, irrespective of our skin colours, countries or languages, are similar. We’re similar on the outside, armed with the same of sight, sound and smell. We’re similar on the inside, too, wanting similar things from life: love, companionship, emotional safety, respect. Yet, we’re as divided as ever, in the same country, in the same state, on the same street. Victoria & Abdul tells us that we needn’t be: that recognising the differences in the other, and embracing them, is what makes us human.